Skip to main content

Professor Stewart's Hoard of Mathematical Treasures - Ian Stewart ***

This book has been around rather a while - in fact it has been on my review shelf for a long time, because there are enough of these books out there (think Prof Stewart's Cabinet, Casebook, Incredible Numbers...) that I thought I'd already reviewed it.
The format is familiar - a series of very short articles, which could be mathematical puzzles, logic puzzles, fun mathematical factoids and so on. The chances are that few readers will find every item interesting - for me, in this book, it was about 1 in 3 - but anyone with at least a vague interest in maths will find some of it worth a read.
Personally I only like the puzzles I can pretty much work out in my head in under a minute - anything requiring any more effort is too much like being back at school and being set homework. I also find the need to keep flipping to the back of the book to see the solutions a pain - it would have been much better if the solution to each puzzle was after the puzzle, so you could read the book sequentially.
Apart from those quick-to-work out puzzles I also enjoyed the historical and biographical articles. Most of the latter seemed to be about mathematicians being extremely eccentric and, say, forgetting who their own children or friends are - I'm not sure Ian Stewart is selling the joys of mathematics very well if this is what it does to your brain (I know, I know - correlation isn't causality).
For me, then, there just wasn't quite enough that clicked to make this a really enjoyable book. But if you like working out how to make a star from a folded piece of paper with just one snip from a pair of scissors, devising magic hexagons (magic squares are just so passé) or working out which three digit numbers are the sum of the cubes of their individual digits (still awake?) then this is very much the book for you. 
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

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…