The Great Mathematical Problems by Ian Stewart
|The Great Mathematical Problems by Ian Stewart|
|Category: Popular Science|
|Reviewer: Robert James|
|Summary: For really good mathematicians, this is an incredible read. (Or so I'm told by a really good mathematician!) If you're not massively confident in your knowledge of the subject, it may not be the most accessible book, though.|
|Buy? Maybe||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 288||Date: March 2013|
|Publisher: Profile Books|
I joked with a friend when I first got the book that The Great Problems may be a step too far for me, and perhaps I should wait for Stewart to release a book called The Fairly Good Mathematical Problems as it would be closer to my level. While I originally said it in jest, by chapter four or so I was starting to think I'd been closer to the truth than I'd realised - Stewart seems, somewhat surprisingly given his past success with books like the brilliant Professor Stewart's Hoard of Mathematical Treasures, to have pitched this book about the 'really big questions in mathematics' at an extremely high level. With just a degree in mathematics and nearly ten years worth of experience teaching the subject, I found it something of a slog to get through, with many concepts being difficult to grasp, in particular the Mordell conjecture.
For topics where I already knew the basics - such as the Four Colour Theorem and Fermat's Last Theorem - I found it an interesting read and enjoyed learning more, or in some cases refreshing my memory, about the theorems and the history behind them. I should also point out that I asked my colleague, who's better at high-level maths than I am, to take a look at it and give me his opinion, and he thought it was brilliant, being absolutely fascinated by it. There's also a decent notes section and a good further reading list which give the reader good suggestions for where to go next from this book. Finally, for anyone who's aiming to join the likes of Andrew Wiles, Grigori Perelman, and others who've achieved fame by solving problems, the Twelve For The Future section will be great fun in terms of suggesting unsolved problems to attempt to tackle. (Personally, I know my limitations and am content to marvel at other people's mathematical ability - my colleague, on the other hand, is on his seventeenth page of working, which is looking increasingly complicated every time I glance at it.)
I think if you're a very confident mathematician this is definitely a book worth reading - but have to say that given the front cover quote describing Stewart as Britain's most brilliant and prolific populariser of mathematics, I was surprised it seemed less accessible than his previous books have been. The star rating for this one could be pretty much anything between three stars (my initial reaction on completing it) to six stars (my friend is convinced it's worth this!) - it really does depend on the reader.
For rather more accessible books on maths, I'd highly recommend The Joy of X by Steven Strogatz and Stewart's own Professor Stewart's Hoard of Mathematical Treasures and Calculating the Cosmos.
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You can read more book reviews or buy The Great Mathematical Problems by Ian Stewart at Amazon.com.
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