Skip to main content

Professor Stewart's Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities - Ian Stewart ****

This is the second review of a trilogy, read in entirely the wrong order (book 3, then 1 here, and 2 to follow), so should you be feeling confused, this book is a predecessor to Professor Stewart's Casebook of Mathematical Mysteries. The format is very similar - a collection of factoids, logical puzzles, mathematical expositions and more to entertain any recreational maths enthusiast. I think it works significantly better in this first book of the series because, to be honest, by volume 3 there is probably a bit of barrel scraping going on. Here the topics are fresh and fun.

There is arguably something for everyone here, which inversely means that there are probably some bits, depending on your mathematical knowledge and interests, that you will either find too trivial or too heavy going. But the format makes it easy to skip through to the next. I personally most enjoy the logic problems (though a small black mark for featuring a near-identical "moving the cups" problem to one in the third book) and, much to my surprise, the geometry, which I suppose took me back to a more innocent time. There were inevitably some entries where there was a strong feeling of 'so what?', leaving the reader suspecting that mathematicians need to get a life. And at least one where I think the answer is wrong, if you apply the same logic as applied in an earlier tricksy question. (It's the one about pigs and umbrellas, if you must know.) 

Funnily, what works least well are the bits that are most like a conventional popular maths book, that describe famous mathematical problems and their context, such as the four colour problem and Fermat's last theorem. The entries for these are rather longer than the rest, but obviously much shorter than, say, Simon Singh's brilliant book on Fermat. That means that you get concentrated fact, but none of the interesting detail that makes a popular science or maths book appealing. For me these sections just don't work and I largely skipped them. 

But - and that's the joy of the format - it really doesn't matter. Because in a few pages there will be something else, and something else, and something else again to entertain and tickle the brain cells. It's notable that I got not just one (about a strange set of dice) but two blog posts (the other being about an oddity in my review copy) out of this book - because it made me think, reminded me of some old favourite problems and puzzles, introduced plenty of new ones and entertained. What more can you ask from maths.


Paperback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…