Thursday, 18 March 2010

Strange Curves, Counting Rabbits and other Mathematical Explorations – Keith Ball ***

There is an immediate concern on glancing at the back of this book. It’s labelled ‘Popular Mathematics’, but the blurb blithely comments ‘Accessible to anyone familiar with basic calculus.’ Whoa, recreational maths this ain’t. You’ve immediately knocked out 90% of the market. But really it’s worse than that. I’d say the level of maths you need to understand the book is a little higher than that suggested – perhaps a first year maths or science undergraduate. But the level of maths you need to enjoy the book is considerably higher. This is a book for maths geeks, people who get a thrill out of working mathematical proofs themselves, as ably demonstrated by all the problems set for the reader, which are often of the form ‘prove the formula…’
It’s a shame that this isn’t for the general reader because there are some great topics. Apart from the familiar old thing about how many people you need in a room to have a 50:50 chance of two having the same birthday (I know this sounds populist enough, but it’s the start of chapter that rapidly veers off into the technical) we get aspects of information theory, methods of approximation, sampling theory, even geometry (with an integral calculus feel). But unless you are the sort of person who can sit down and enjoy a maths text book, this isn’t for you.
In essence this is what we are dealing with – a text book, but rather than dealing with a specific topic, dealing with various interesting bits of maths. For that reason it’s impossible to give it more than three stars here. A simple flick through – most of the pages are at least half equations – will confirm that it really won’t work for the majority of the readers. But if you salivate at the thought of working those calculations, then run don’t walk to the bookshop –for once they’ve produced a book just for you.

Paperback:  
Review by Peter Spitz

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