Skip to main content

Number Freak – Derrick Niederman ***

Things didn’t start well with me with this self-confessed ‘mathematical compendium from 1 to 200′. On the front it has a quote from Carol Vorderman. ‘This book is a complete joy. It made me smile. A lot.’ Is it really a recommendation that a book made Carol Vorderman smile? This started me off in a nervous disposition.
When it comes down to it, this is one of those books that takes a theme and batters it to death. ‘I’ll list every number between 1 and 200 and write something interesting about it,’ thought the author. (Except he couldn’t find anything at all to say about 183.) Oh, good – a bit like counting sheep. Inevitably this format leads to a forced style, but to be fair, Derrick Niederman does manage to dig up some quite interesting material (occasionally it feels like wading through one of the worse episodes of QI) about the numbers in question. At these points it can be entertaining. But all too often I found myself thinking ‘not another…[insert mathematical structure of your choice].’ It all gets a bit samey.
This is not helped by a rather limited ability on the part of the author to explain mathematical matters lucidly. Several times I found myself having to read a paragraph two or three times to try to understand what Niederman was trying to get across. Even straightforward English sometimes presents a challenge. Take this comment about the Olympic rings. ‘Although the colours of the rings – blue, black, yellow, green, and red – do not correspond to [the five regions of the world] in a one-to-one sense, each of these five colours is represented in every national flag in the world.’ Really? Where is the yellow and black in the Union Flag or the Star Spangled Banner? It just doesn’t make sense. What he probably meant is that every national flag contains at least one of these colours, but it’s not what he said, and someone writing about maths should understand the need for precision.
I’d also have been a lot happier if the book gave some explanations for some of the apparently arbitrary labels of mathematics. For instance, we are told 6 is the first perfect number (it’s the sum of the numbers that divide into it, 1, 2 and 3). I knew that. But what I didn’t know, and would like to know, is so what? What does this signify? What does it do or provide us with as a piece of information? How can we use it? It’s just left dangling.
All in all, highly curate’s-egg-like as a reading experience. It’s very rare I don’t get all the way through a book, but I confess I couldn’t be bothered to finish this one.
Hardback:  
Review by Peter Spitz

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

The Bastard Legion (SF) - Gavin Smith *****

Science fiction has a long tradition of 'military in space' themes - and usually these books are uninspiring at best and verging on fascist at worst. From a serious SF viewpoint, it seemed that Joe Haldeman's magnificent The Forever War made the likes of Starship Troopers a mocked thing of the past, but sadly Hollywood seems to have rebooted the concept and we now see a lot of military SF on the shelves.

The bad news is that The Bastard Legion could not be classified as anything else - but the good news is that, just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer subverted the vampire genre, The Bastard Legion has so many twists on a straightforward 'marines in space' title that it does a brilliant job of subversion too.

The basic scenario is instantly different. Miska is heading up a mercenary legion, except they're all hardened criminals on a stolen prison ship, taking part because she has stolen the ship and fitted them all with explosive collars. Oh, and helping her train her &…

The Laser Inventor - Theodore Maiman ****

While the memoirs of many scientists are probably best kept for family consumption, there are some breakthroughs where the story is sufficiently engaging that it can be fascinating to get an inside view on what really happened. Although Theodore Maiman's autobiographical book is not a slick, journalist-polished account, it is very effective at highlighting two significant narratives - how Maiman was able to construct the first ever laser, despite having far fewer resources than many of his competitors, and how 'establishment' academic physicists, particularly in the US, tried to minimise his achievement.

On the straight autobiographical side, we get some early background and discover how Maiman combined degrees in electrical engineering and physics to have an unusually strong mix of the practical and the theoretical. Rather than go into academia after his doctorate, he went into industry - which seems to have been responsible for the backlash against his invention, which we…