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The Life-Changing Magic of Numbers - Bobby Seagull ***

When a science book is branded as having a celebrity author it's tempting to ignore it, but presumably a good number of people buy such books or publishers wouldn't put them out - and in the case of Bobby Seagull, it is at least (we are told on the cover) someone who is famous for being on the TV show University Challenge. The format is an odd one - Seagull gives us shortish chapters on what seem to be random things that interest him, in which he finds a sometimes tenuous mathematical topic. The result is more than a touch bitty.

Each chapter also ends with a little challenge in the form of a puzzle. Some are simple algebra problems (though concealed in words), others hide away mathematical sequences for the reader to spot. These are quite fun initially, though they get a little samey after a while.

How well the topics work depend to some extent on how much your own interests line up with Seagull's. So, for example, as soon as he mentions football (which he does quite often) I tend to turn off - but others might find that appealing. He's best when he's dealing with quite interesting (in the QI sense) maths - for example when dealing with the law of large numbers or mathematics in magic. Elsewhere the maths itself can be rather tedious (for example in a section on compound interest), or the topic itself can seem to have very little to offer mathematically, as in a chapter on 'the strategy of game shows' which feels very forced in to match Seagull's claim to fame.

If this book encourages readers who think they don't like maths to dip their toes in the water (Seagull is doing a doctorate in maths anxiety at Cambridge), then it is highly worthwhile, and I hope it succeeds in making more people realise that maths is magic. But for me, the lack of structure and the rather school-level writing style didn't make it a truly enjoyable read.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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