Skip to main content

Sacred Mathematics – Fukagawa Hidetoshi & Tony Rothman ***

This is a heavy, lushly produced looking book with a glossy golden cover and glossy pages throughout. When the introduction said it could be read as an art book ‘that delights simply by the perusal of it’ I expected it to be a collection of beautiful colour illustrations, but rather light on the ‘Japanese temple geometry’ promised in the subtitle. In fact it’s the other way round. There are a few colour plates in the middle, but all the rest of those glossy pages are used to display black and white that would have worked equally well on much cheaper ordinary paper.
Overall it’s a strange book. The idea is to display the (mostly) geometrical problems, hung up by ordinary people on boards called sangaku in temples across Japan between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. It’s a wonderful and bizarre concept. After a bit of interesting history, page after page of the book – the vast bulk of it – is filled with these problems for the reader to solve (there are solutions later on).
The result is something like the result of breeding a coffee table art book with a geometry text book – it doesn’t work very satisfactorily as either. Many of the geometry problems aren’t particularly mathematically significant, and it’s hard not to wonder why one should bother after a while, unless the reader happens to be the sort of person who likes solving geometric problems just for the fun of it. You can see why the idea behind this book originated from the same culture as sudoku. Just like that irritating number game, it’s a very clever concept that is ultimately entirely pointless.
Review by Jo Reed


Popular posts from this blog

The Dialogues - Clifford Johnson ***

The authors of science books are always trying to find new ways to get the message across to their audiences. In Dialogues, Clifford Johnson combines a very modern technique - the graphic novel or comic strip - with an approach that goes back to Ancient Greece - using a dialogue to add life to what might seem a dry message.

We have seen the comic strip approach trying to put across quite detailed science before in Mysteries of the Quantum Universe. As with that book, Dialogues manages to cover a fair amount of actual physics, but I still feel that the medium just wastes vast acres of page to say very little at all. This is brought home here because quite a lot of the sections of Dialogues start with several pages with no text on at all, just setting up the scenario.

As for using a discussion between two people to put a message across, Johnson makes the point that, for instance, Galileo's very readable masterpiece Two New Sciences is in the form of a dialogue (more accurately a discu…

On the Moor - Richard Carter ****

There's much to enjoy in Richard Carter's pean to the frugal yet visceral delights of being one with England's Pennine moorland. If this were all there were to the book it would have made a good nature read, but Carter cleverly weaves in science at every opportunity, whether it's inspired by direct observations of birds and animals and plants - I confess I was ignorant of the peregrine falcon's 200 mile per hour dive - or spinning off from a trig point onto the geometric methods of surveying through history all the way up to GPS.

Carter is something of an expert on Darwin, and inevitably the great man comes into the story many times - yet his appearance never seems forced. It's hard to spend your time in a natural environment like this and not have Darwin repeatedly brought to mind.

I confess to a distinct love of these moors. Having spent my first 11 years in and around Littleborough, just the other side of Blackstone Edge from Carter's moor, the moorland…

Ten Great Ideas About Chance - Persi Diaconis and Brian Skyrms ***

There are few topics that fascinate me as much as chance and probability. It's partly the wonder that mathematics can be applied to something so intangible and also because so often the outcomes of probability are counter-intuitive and we can enjoy the 'Huh?' impact of something that works yet feels so far from common sense.

I think I ought to start by saying what this is isn't. It's definitely not an introductory book - the authors assume that the reader 'has taken a first undergraduate course in probability or statistics'. And though there's an appendix that claims to be a probability tutorial for those who haven't got this background, it's not particularly reader-friendly - in theory I knew everything in the appendix, but I still found parts of it near-impossible to read.

As for the main text, if you pass that first criterion, my suspicion is that, like me, you will find parts utterly fascinating and other parts pretty much incomprehensible. Th…