Skip to main content

The Puzzler’s Dilemma – Derrick Niederman ****

For me, the best popular science books are those that get you actively involved and thinking about what’s being looked at, rather than merely allowing you to take in the information passively. Whether it’s through exercises to get stuck into, little experiments to try out for yourself, or puzzles which challenge you to think things through – it just makes a book more enjoyable and memorable, and allows you to get more from it.
I really enjoyed this book from Derrick Niederman, then – it’s jam packed full of puzzles and logic problems which really get you thinking, and which get across well the themes covered. The puzzles slot in around what the book fundamentally is – a collection of short reflections on all kinds of aspects of puzzles and puzzle solving. We look at, for instance, how puzzles can be categorised, strategies for solving puzzles, and what puzzles can reveal about the mind and human reasoning.
One thing I found fascinating was the way we often unnecessarily complicate problems by failing to see the simple solutions to them. Asked, for example, to work out the area of a triangle with sides of 6, 8, and 14 inches, many of us would at first massively overestimate the amount of calculations and thinking we’re going to need to do to solve the problem. Whereas, in fact, the answer is simple and no difficult calculations are required. 6 and 8 equal 14, so what we essentially have is the two smaller sides lying flat on top of the longest side – the area is 0.
I found it incredibly difficult to put this book down – I either wanted to keep reading to find out the solutions to the puzzles, or was totally immersed in one of the many interesting stories the author tells about particular puzzles and their history. Add to this the author’s sense of humour, and this is one the most fun little books I have read in a long time.
Paperback:  
Also in Hardback:  
Review by Matt Chorley

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Logic - Eugenia Cheng ***

This is an important book, though I'm not sure Eugenia Cheng would agree with my logic in saying so. 

Going on the marketing, what we have here is a counter to fake news and dodgy argumentation in the form of mathematical logic. The back cover tells us 'Newspaper headlines and social media use emotions to warp the facts. Politicians and companies master rhetoric to mislead us. What one book could help us make sense of it all?' Admittedly they don't answer their rhetorical question, but I assume the answer is intended to be The Art of Logic. (Did the company behind this book realise it was using rhetoric, though presumably not to mislead us?) 

What we actually have is a combination of a lucid and interesting explanation of the basics of logic with the mathematical equivalent of those books such as Algorithms to Live By that were so popular a couple of years ago. They used the logic of algorithms (differently worded, and, to me, easier to understand), the heart of computer…

Quantum Economics - David Orrell ****

David Orrell's earlier title Economyths is one of my favourite popular science books of all time. Or, perhaps, I should say popular non-science, as Orrell shows just how devastatingly traditional economics uses the tools of science without having a scientific basis. I was, therefore, really looking forward to reading Orrell's new book - until I saw the title. As anyone involved with physics can tell you, there's nothing more irritating than the business of sticking the word 'quantum' onto something to give a pseudo-scientific boost to waffle and woo. Was Orrell doing the same thing? Thankfully, his introduction put my fears aside.

Orrell, a mathematician with a physics background quickly makes it clear that the way he is using quantum theory is not just employing magic words, but involves making use of strong parallels between the nature of quantum objects and concepts like money (more on money in a moment). Yes, this is to some extent a metaphorical use of quantum …

The Ashtray - Errol Morris *****

Wow. When someone suggested I read a book called The Ashtray, written by a documentary film-maker, it didn't strike me that it would be a book that gave deep insights into the history and philosophy of science - while also being a remarkable reading experience. In fact, I almost didn't bother with it, but I'm glad that I did.

The titular ashtray was thrown at the author when he was a grad student - thrown by one of the two best known names in the philosophy of science, Thomas Kuhn, he of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and the concept of paradigm shifts. Kuhn didn't like the young Errol Morris daring to challenge his ideas and reacted with what some would regard as a less than philosophical reply by hurling a heavy glass ashtray at him.

Part of the reason that reading The Ashtray is a remarkable experience is because it's a book that feels in some ways like watching a documentary. I have to confess I've never seen any of Morris's work, but he uses vis…