Skip to main content

Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension - Matt Parker ****

Anyone who has seen Matt Parker perform standup maths as I have (with the excellent Festival of the Spoken Nerd) will immediately recognise the style of this entertaining recreational-ish maths book: an easy, if slightly obsessive communication style, warm and friendly and with a slightly groan-making sense of humour.

I absolutely loved the title, although in a way it's a bit of a let down, as their are relatively few things to 'make and do' here - it is mostly straightforward recreational mathematics - though you certainly can't fault the promise of dealing with the fourth dimension, as well as the fifth, sixth and  196,883rd dimension (and that not one of the joky bits - this is genuinely significant).

Like most rec maths books, while it's clear that the author finds it all fascinating I found some captivating, some vaguely interesting and some a touch 'meh'. But as long as you accept that not all of it will work for you and you might have to skip a few bits and pieces, it has some absolute gems. From interesting ways to cut up pizzas via computers made with dominos (see my blog post on mechanical computing) and those many dimensional shapes to networks, variants of Möbius strips I've never seen before and an equation that plots as the equation itself there's truly mind boggling stuff. I particularly loved the bit about the secret checking mechanisms in barcodes and VAT numbers (but that's just me) and I'm sure you'll have your own favourites.

Perhaps the weakest parts of the book are the dips into mathematical history. Parker falls for the usual problem of over-egging what was done in 'programming' the non-existent Analytical Engine, and his quick whiz through some of the big names of maths towards the end of the book seems a little out of place with the rest. He acknowledges maths history is a 'bit like herding porridge', but I'm not sure this section adds a lot to the book.

It's interesting to compare TtMaitFD with the work of the hyper-productive Ian Stewart, probably our best known living maths populariser. Despite his light style, Parker took significant risks in going into more depth than Stewart often does in his rec maths books, and I think the gamble pays off, though it may bamboozle some readers. Parker certainly gives Stewart a run for his money and packs plenty in. Recreational maths doesn't work for everyone, but for the naturally geeky this book has a distinct appeal.

Hardback:  
Paperback (from July 2015):  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…

A turnround from Tyson

I am delighted that one of our reviewers has been able to give a five star review to Neil deGrasse Tyson's latest book. The astrophysicist has taken over Carl Sagan's old post as the number one science populariser in the US, but his written output in the past has been patchy, to say the least.

There have been at least two significant problems. One is dubious history of science. For example, in the cases of both Galileo and Bruno he has passed on undiluted the comic book version of history where Galileo is persecuted for mentioned heliocentricity (rather than his disastrous political handling of the  pope) and mutters 'Eppur si muove!' at his trial, and Bruno is burned at the stake for his advanced scientific ideas (both misrepresentations). Some argue that it getting history of science accurate doesn't matter if we get the right message about science across - but if we are prepared to distort historical data, why should anyone take scientific data seriously?

The o…