Skip to main content

The Great Mathematical Problems – Ian Stewart *****

As a science writer, whose only foray into maths has been to cover infinity – by far the sexiest and most intriguing mathematical topic – I am in awe of those who successfully popularize maths.

By comparison, science is easy. We all know from school that science can be dull, but if you go about it the right way, it is naturally fascinating, because it’s about how the universe we live in works. Admittedly maths has plenty of applications, but an awful lot of mathematics is about a universe we don’t live in. It can seem that many mathematicians spend their time doing the equivalent of arguing about the dietary habits of unicorns. Not really a proper job for a grown human being.
Probably the best of the current crop of popular maths writers is Ian Stewart. Certainly the most prolific – I don’t know how he finds the time for his day job. Stewart is decidedly variable in his books. Some of them are pure unicorn territory. I find myself turning page after page thinking ‘So what? I don’t care!’ But every now and then he gets it just right – and this is such an example.
Okay, there are occasional unicorn moments, where I had to skip through a page or two to avoid dropping off (when, for example, he gets altogether too excited about the prospect of constructing a regular 17 sided polygon using only a ruler and a pair of compasses), but they are rare indeed. Stewart takes on some of the greatest problems to face mathematicians through history – even the names are evocative, like Goldbach’s Conjecture and, of course, the Riemann Hypothesis. They sound like a Sherlock Holmes story. And Stewart makes them interesting. Which is truly wonderful.
In part the readability is because of a good smattering of stuff about the people – historical context is never more important than in popular maths – but he also pitches the mathematics itself at just the right level to keep our interest without going into mind-numbing detail, or being too summary. I am very wary of describing any book as a tour-de-force, but this one certainly comes close.
Even though Stewart does not keep things enthralling throughout – the dullest chapter is the one on Fermat’s Last Theorem, which I suspect is because Stewart focuses more on the maths here and less on the people, so excellently covered by Simon Singh – there is plenty in this book to keep the imagination alive. If you hate maths this is not going to make you a convert. But if, like me, you have a grudging admiration for maths but find a lot of it impenetrable or pointless, you should have a great time in Ian Stewart’s capable hands.
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Four Way Interview - Tom Cabot

Tom Cabot is a London-based book editor and designer with a background in experimental psychology, natural science and graphic design. He founded the London-based packaging company, Ketchup, and has produced and illustrated many books for the British Film Institute, Penguin and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tom has held a lifelong passion to explain science graphically and inclusively ... ever since being blown away by Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten at an early age. His first book is Eureka, an infographic guide to science.

Why infographics?
For me infographics provided a way to present heavy-lifting science in an alluring and playful, but ultimately illuminating, way. And I love visualising data and making it as attractive as the ideas are.  The novelty of the presentation hopefully gets the reader to look afresh. I love the idea of luring in readers who might normally be put off by drier, more monotone science – people who left science behind at 16. I wanted the boo…

Einstein's Greatest Mistake - David Bodanis ****

Books on Einstein and his work are not exactly thin on the ground. There's even been more than one book before with a title centring on Einstein's mistake or mistakes. So to make a new title worthwhile it has do something different - and David Bodanis certainly achieves this with Einstein's Greatest Mistake. If I'm honest, the book isn't the greatest on the science or the history - but what it does superbly is tell a story. The question we have to answer is why that justifies considering this to be a good book.
I would compare Einstein's Greatest Mistake with the movie Lincoln -  it is, in effect, a biopic in book form with all the glory and flaws that can bring. Compared with a good biography, a biopic will distort the truth and emphasise parts of the story that aren't significant because they make for a good screen scene. But I would much rather someone watched the movie than never found out anything about Lincoln - and similarly I'd much rather someon…

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First t…