Skip to main content

Prime Suspects - Andrew Granville and Jennifer Granville **

Every now and then someone comes up with the bright idea of doing popular science (or in this case, popular maths) using the graphic novel format. Although I'm not a great fan of the genre, because it so vastly reduces the number of words available, making it very difficult to put across complex or nuanced information, I can see why the concept appeals. But for me, this particular attempt, illustrated by Robert Lewis, falls down on addressing the audience appropriately.

More on that in a moment. What Andrew and Jennifer Granville attempt to do here is put across a fairly obscure bit of mathematics - the relationship between the distribution of the primes and the cycles of permutations - using a very abstracted story in the form of a murder mystery where each victim represents one of the mathematical examples. The authors also claim in their epilogue that their aims include drawing attention to how research is done, the role of women in mathematics today and the 'influence and conflict of deep and rigid abstraction' (no, I don't either).

What we get is a strange murder mystery story where a maths professor is called in to help a detective, making use of two of the professor's students. They are trying to link two similar cases with very different victims. All the characters are named after famous mathematicians and supposedly explain the mathematical ideas they put forward, but this is not done in a way that makes the maths particularly accessible, hindered as it is by the need to compress all the text into speech bubbles and to waste 95 per cent of the page on imagery.

Because the storyline is so abstracted from the mathematics, the images themselves contribute very little. It doesn't help that they vary hugely in quality - some are well drawn, others clearly hurriedly sketched, so that, for example, on page 15 Professor Gauss appears to have six foot long arms. The storyline itself is disjointed, jumping backwards and forwards in time and involving the main detective in a journey to Europe that seems primarily designed to give him something to do while the mathematicians get on with chipping away at the mathematics (and doing autopsies, because, of course, that's what mathematicians do).

If this really is supposed, as the authors say, to give insight into 'the role of student and adviser' it seems that one lesson we need to draw is that professors choose their research assistants by asking trivial questions of a class and then pretty much picking someone arbitrarily.

But I inevitably come back to the audience. Prime Suspects is far too abstruse to appeal to the general graphic novel reader, while the fan of popular maths titles will find the lack of opportunity to explain, explore and appreciate context extremely frustrating; meanwhile the mathematical message proves incredibly hard to follow. The illustrations are crammed with mathematical in-jokes, which makes me wonder if the authors' true audience was other mathematicians - not to inform, but to entertain. It's an interesting, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempt at the communication of maths and the world of academia to a wider audience.
Paperback 

Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Artificial Intelligence - Melanie Mitchell *****

As Melanie Mitchell makes plain, humans have limitations in their visual abilities, typified by optical illusions, but artificial intelligence (AI) struggles at a much deeper level with recognising what's going on in images. Similarly in some ways, the visual appearance of this book misleads. It's worryingly fat and bears the ascetic light blue cover of the Pelican series, which since my childhood have been markers of books that were worthy but have rarely been readable. This, however, is an excellent book, giving a clear picture of how many AI systems go about their business and the huge problems designers of such systems face.

Not only does Mitchell explain the main approaches clearly, her account is readable and engaging. I read a lot of popular science books, and it's rare that I keep wanting to go back to one when I'm not scheduled to be reading it - this is one of those rare examples.

We discover how AI researchers have achieved the apparently remarkable abiliti…

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …

Colin Stuart - Four Way Interview

Colin Stuart is an astronomy journalist, author and science communicator. He has written fourteen science books to date, which have been translated into nineteen languages, including 13 Journeys Through Space and Time: Christmas Lectures From the Royal Institution and The Universe in Bite-sized Chunks both published by Michael O’Mara Books. He also has written for the Guardian, the European Space Agency and New Scientist and has spoken on Sky News, BBC News and Radio 5 Live. He is a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and even has an asteroid named after him. His latest title is Rebel Star: our quest to solve the great mysteries of the Sun.

Why science? 

For me the stories that you can tell with modern science rival the most imaginative leaps in fiction. The secret, invisible kingdoms of bacteria and sub-atomic particles. The logic defying realms of black holes and Big Bangs. That excites me more than Hogwarts or Mordor. The universe is an amazing place and we’ve only just scratche…