Skip to main content

The Magic of Maths - Arthur Benjamin ***

There are broadly three types of popular maths. There are books like A Brief History of Infinity which introduce mathematical concepts and history without actually doing any maths - and these can be fascinating. There are books of recreational maths, like Martin Gardner's classic Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions, or Ian Stewart's Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities, which explore the weird and wonderful of maths, with a need for a bit of practical working out, but almost always provide plenty of fun along the way. And there are book like the Magic of Maths. (Could I say, by the way, how grateful I am that the UK edition has that 's' on 'maths'.) Almost always written by mathematicians, such books set out to prove to the masses who think that actually getting your hands dirty and doing mathematics is too hard or too boring that it's really easy and enjoyable too.
To give him his due, Arthur Benjamin makes a good stab at this - one of the best I've seen. He tells us we're going to learn clever little tricks that will allow us to do amazing things with mental arithmetic - for instance multiplying surprisingly big numbers in our heads. And he delivers. It really works, and we can amaze ourselves, though probably not our friends, because if other readers are anything like me they will have forgotten most of the techniques by the time they finish the next chapter.
Benjamin also takes on the likes of algebra, Fibonacci numbers, geometry, trigonometry, imaginary numbers, calculus and more. And going on the pages of testimonials from maths professors in the front, this is the kind of thing maths-heavy people love. And that's fine. But for most of us I'd say 80 per cent of the book is not going to be appreciated. Early on, Benjamin tells us we shouldn't mind skipping pages or even chapters. But when you find yourself skipping most of the content, it begins to feel as if it wasn't a great thing to read in the first place.
In one of those fruitless exercises in saying the whole world is your audience, Benjamin comments that the book is for anyone who will one day take a maths course, is taking a maths course or is finished taking maths courses. I'd say the audience is a lot tighter. It's for people who one day will take a maths degree, or took one years ago and wants to reminisce. It's just too number heavy and narrative light to work for me. And I have taken a maths course. But I certainly don't want take another - and this has reminded me why.
I have to emphasise that the book is by no means all bad. Benjamin does introduce some fun, and weird and wonderful stuff, like the apparent demonstration that infinity is equal to -1/12 (though I've seen better explanations of why this demonstration falls apart). But far too often what Benjamin thinks is fun is just 'So what?' to us lesser mortals.
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

The Bastard Legion (SF) - Gavin Smith *****

Science fiction has a long tradition of 'military in space' themes - and usually these books are uninspiring at best and verging on fascist at worst. From a serious SF viewpoint, it seemed that Joe Haldeman's magnificent The Forever War made the likes of Starship Troopers a mocked thing of the past, but sadly Hollywood seems to have rebooted the concept and we now see a lot of military SF on the shelves.

The bad news is that The Bastard Legion could not be classified as anything else - but the good news is that, just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer subverted the vampire genre, The Bastard Legion has so many twists on a straightforward 'marines in space' title that it does a brilliant job of subversion too.

The basic scenario is instantly different. Miska is heading up a mercenary legion, except they're all hardened criminals on a stolen prison ship, taking part because she has stolen the ship and fitted them all with explosive collars. Oh, and helping her train her &…

Euler's Pioneering Equation - Robin Wilson ***

The concept of a 'beautiful equation' is a mystery to many, but it seems to combine a piece of mathematics that expresses something sophisticated in relatively few terms and something that looks satisfying. The equation that has proved standout amongst mathematicians, as by far the most beautiful (and is only placed second to Maxwell's equation amongst physicists) is Euler's remarkable eiπ+1 = 0. What seems remarkable to me about this is that it just seems bizarre that this combination of things produces such a neat result. (Incidentally, as far as I can see, the only reason for the 'pioneering' in the title was to enable the fancy graphic on the cover of the book.)

Getting popular maths books right is incredibly difficult. When I started reading this book, I really thought that Robin Wilson had cracked it. After an introduction, he gives us a chapter on each of the elements of the equation (except the plus and equals signs), from the more basic aspects like 1 a…