February 09, 2009

Book Review: Prof. Stewart's Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities

4 out of 5 stars

Once upon a time, Maths and I got on rather well. Right through school, and my first year of uni, maths seemed to be pretty obvious and straightforward, and what’s more, there always seemed to be new and exciting things to learn about it.

Then somewhere around the middle of my second year, it all went a bit pear shaped. Whether it was linked to the traditional second-year increase in beer and late nights, or whether I’d just reached some natural brain-power threshold, the tuesday morning double-bill of Fluid Dynamics followed by something (which I’ve since blotted from memory) that involved a lot of Group Theory, stopped being a stimulating intellectual challenge and became more like a kind of academic version of school cross-country runs, to be endured with gritted teeth, and avoided at the first opportunity. I quickly revised my module choices to those with the least maths overhead, and Maths and I drifted slowly apart.

So, what could I possibly find interesting about a big book of maths? Well, it turns out that, rather like those cross-country runs, if you’re allowed to go at your own pace, and have a rest when you want to, it’s actually rather fun.
This book presents you with a large number of bite-size chunks of maths, artfully arranged to show you around a wide variety of topics. Some chunks simply provide an overview of an interesting area of study, or a counter-intuitive result, others are puzzles left for you to work out (but with answers in the back, for the lazy/impatient!).
You can pick it up and just browse a single curiosity for five minutes, or you can spend half an hour solving one or two of the puzzles, or a couple of hours (or as long as you’ve got!) attempting to wrap your brain around the Banach-Tarski paradox or the Riemann Hypothesis. It’s accessible so long as you can remember some of your A-level maths, and peppered with jokes of a kind that are very possibly unique to Maths professors, some of which are rather good.

Most pleasingly, it’s not a book with an agenda – it’s not trying to lead you to some grand conclusion (R. Penrose, are you listening? Emperor’s New Mind: TL,DR ). It’s a genuine miscellany, which you can dip in and out of in any order you like, more or less (best not to start with the answers, though). It manages to be satisfyingly thought-provoking but never arduous or tedious. Highly recommended.
Oh, and it’s bargainacious on amazon at the moment. Buy it now!

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