Skip to main content

L.A. Math by James D. Stein ****

It has always seemed that it would be a great idea to write fiction which managed to painlessly get across ideas in science or mathematics, but usually the outcome of attempting to do this is something distinctly worthy that lacks any entertainment or effectiveness as a narrative. 

In L.A. Math, James Stein has managed the closest approximation to getting it just right I've yet to see. The stories work as detective tales, but the denouement relies not on sophisticated detection but on mathematical deduction. The style is quite old-fashioned - I'd liken it to a cross between P. G. Wodehouse and the classic American crime writer Ellery Queen - but I don't see this as a bad thing. The storylines might not be soul-searching literary fiction, but they are entertaining and engaging tales. The main character, Freddy Carmichael (we're already getting that Wodehouse vibe) is a detective, but struggles with solving cases where maths features strongly. Luckily, though, his slob of a landlord and housemate, Pete Lennox, has an incisive mathematical mind and helps Freddy out when he's at a loss.

Admittedly no one is going to read this book and become a maths star, but there's always a pleasure in having a chance to think through the mathematical puzzle and take on the detective. 

In this respect, I thought the first story was disappointing, as it's not possible to conclusively come to the same result as the detective. It's one of those 'eliminate combinations' logic problems; we are trying to work out who a dubious contact is meeting. We are first told 'If he doesn't meet Hazlitt, he is meeting Burns', but later told this is 'totally wrong'. Our detective assumes that this statement being totally wrong means that the suspect is meeting neither Hazlitt nor Burns. But all that's required for the statement to be totally wrong is that if the suspect doesn't meet Hazlitt he doesn't meet Burns either. It still leaves open the possibilities that the suspect does meet only Hazlitt or he does meet both of them. This might seem like nit-picking, but the whole point of an exercise like this is that it has to work to get the point across.

However, that is a one-off and the rest of the crime puzzles provide both entertainment and the chance to learn a few maths tricks, and in each case there's an appendix to dig into the topic in a little more depth, if you're that kind of a person. (I admit it. I'm that kind of a person.) Fun for any crime-fiction lover who fancies a spot of mathematical adventuring, or vice versa.


Hardback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Rockets and Rayguns - Andrew May ****

The Cold War period saw dramatic developments in science and technology, coinciding with the flourishing of the science fiction genre. In Rockets and Rayguns, Andrew May draws on the parallels between reality and fiction, each influencing the other.

Inevitably a major Cold War theme was the threat of nuclear war, and May opens with the bomb. It's fascinating that fiction got there first - nuclear weapons were featured in science fiction when many physicists were still doubting the practicality of using nuclear energy. Of course, it's a lot easier to simply take a concept and dream up a weapon than it is to make it for real - for example, H. G. Wells' prophetic nuclear bombs from his 1914 The World Set Free were nothing like the real thing. And some science fiction devices concepts - notably ray guns and force fields - came to very little in reality. However this doesn't prevent the parallels being of interest.

May gives us a mix of the science - describing how nuclear we…

Galileo Galilei, the Tuscan Artist – Pietro Greco ****

Near the beginning of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, he refers to a ‘Tuscan artist’ viewing the Moon through an optic glass. He’s talking about Galileo – one of history’s greatest scientists, but not the most obvious person to slap an ‘artist’ label on. Yet Galileo lived at a time – the Renaissance – when it was fashionable to dabble impartially in both the arts and sciences. Look up ‘Renaissance man’ on Wikipedia and you’ll see Galileo’s picture right there underneath Leonardo da Vinci’s. It’s a less well-known side to his life, but it crops up again and again – interspersed among his many scientific achievements – in this excellent new biography by Pietro Greco.

If you’re looking for interesting trivia, you’ll find plenty in this book. Galileo’s father was a musician with scientific leanings, who carried out some of the first experiments on musical acoustics – which Galileo may have assisted with. As a young professor of mathematics, Galileo delivered a couple of lectures on …

The Ultimate Interplanetary Travel Guide - Jim Bell **

Not too long ago, NASA brought out a series of spoof ‘space tourism’ posters for various destinations in the Solar System. For people like me, who have watched NASA depressingly fail to send humans to the other planets for decade after decade, it was just another painful twist of the knife. On the other hand, the posters probably have more appeal for younger and less cynical minds, by presenting familiar astronomical objects in a new and engaging way. There may even be scope for a whole book along these lines – and that’s what Jim Bell has attempted here.

The main thing I learned from it is that my brain is programmed to read either fiction or non-fiction, and can’t handle a 50:50 mix of the two – which is what this book is. It drove me mad –  not least because I could see that the same material, presented as straight non-fiction, could have made a really excellent book. Using the NASA posters as a starting point, he could have enumerated the potential ‘tourist sights’ at each location…