Thursday, 28 July 2011

Mind Bending Puzzles & Fascinating Facts – Paul Williams ***

There is nothing like a bunch of puzzles and factoids to help the reader recover from some heavy duty popular science reading. Although not all the puzzles and quite interesting facts in this book fall within the remit of science or maths, it has enough to qualify here.
Paul Williams has organized his book into five sections – easy, moderate, tricky, difficult and fiendish. This doesn’t necessarily reflect how puzzling a topic is, but often refers to the amount of mathematical effort involved – so most of the ‘fiendish’ topics are straight mathematical proofs.
Each item in the book is standalone, making this a good dip-in book (dare I say it, handy to install in the toilet). It is best described as eclectic. There are quite a lot of mathematical conundrums, but there are also logic problems, little bits of science and a collection of items that could best be described as ‘quite interesting’ from palindromes to ways of doing quick calculations in the head.
Some of the entries are entertainingly surprising. I liked, for example, a little piece on words that can’t be spelled or can’t be pronounced, where basically the verb applied to two different activities and sounds the same but is pronounced differently or vice versa. The problem arises when trying to use a single verb to cover both activities. This was rather neat. Elsewhere things were less effective. This was either because there wasn’t enough material, or what there was seemed feeble. We have a section that tells us, for example about what would happen if you fell down a hole through the centre of the Earth, but it doesn’t mention the really interesting point that the time is constant whether you go through the centre of the Earth or miss it and take a shorter route.
To give an example of a couple of feeble entries, we are told how everyone got it wrong by celebrating the millennium in the year 2000 – come on, this is hardly news. Worst of all is the entry that starts: ‘Poetry is fun. Some people like reading poetry but many people also write poetry.’ This seems like the kind of statement a 9-year-old would write. We are then subjected to four poems that Williams likes. What has this to do with either mind bending puzzles or fascinating facts? It’s self-indulgence, and suggests this book is in need of a good editor.
Probably the biggest fault with the book is bringing it out as hardback. This isn’t the kind of thing to be cherished, it’s a cheap and cheerful kind of subject and it would have been better to have made it a cheap and cheerful paperback rather than a hardback retailing at £12.99 (at the time of reviewing it is a bit cheaper on Amazon) – the only thing to be said for this is it makes it a good gift book.
Overall then, a real curates egg of factoids, puzzles and straightforward mathematical proofs (the last of which are hardly mind bending or fascinating). At its best, very entertaining, but all too often it’s not so much ‘quite interesting’ as ‘faintly interesting.’
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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