Skip to main content

Professor Stewart's Incredible Numbers - Ian Stewart ***

Ian Stewart is the most prolific writer in the field of popular maths, sometimes producing absolute crackers of a book like The Great Mathematical Problems and sometimes turning out ones that don't quite hit the mark. Intriguingly, this seems to manage to be both, in the same way as we discover that zero manages to be the same as minus zero.

The good news is that there's all kind of weird and wonderful mathematical information here. The book is divided into many sections, starting with the small integers, and making it all the way to infinity, via a plethora of different values and climaxing, appropriately enough, with 42. 

The bad news is that this format means that the book is mostly a collection of facts with limited context and narrative, the part of a popular maths/science book that makes for a truly engrossing read. There are also heavy duty examples of the classic writer's error of 'If it's interesting to me, it must be to you.' So, at one point we read 'On Christmas day 1640 the brilliant mathematician Pierre de Fermat wrote to the monk Marin Mersenne, and asked an intriguing question. Which numbers can be written as a sum of two perfect squares.'

In fact there are two problems with this particular extract. One is spurious context. Unless there was some relevance to it being Christmas Day, then telling us that makes it sound like we're getting context without actually doing so. But worse is the 'intriguing question' bit - because unless you are a mathematician, there is nothing intriguing about that question. 

I think a good general test of whether this book will work for you or not is how you react to magic squares - those grids of numbers that typically add up to the same value along each row, column and diagonal. It's a good example of how the book is organised, by the way, that these turn up in the section for number 9, because the smallest magic square is 3x3. If your reaction to magic squares is a mild interest that the earliest known magic square is called the Lo Shu (no date given), but then you get bored finding out about the properties of all sorts of different magic squares you will find parts of the book hard going. On the other hand, if after four pages on magic squares you think 'I wish there was more on magic squares,' rush out and buy a copy immediately. 

If I am honest I am more in the first camp - but it didn't stop me reading the whole book because there are a good few genuinely interesting bits. The ones that work for me are the historically meaty ones, like the origin of zero, negative numbers and complex numbers - my suspicion is that every reader will find some parts to enjoy. So you pays your money (in real numbers) and you makes your choice. 


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 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…

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…