Professor Stewart's Casebook of Mathematical Mysteries by Ian Stewart
Professor Stewart's Casebook of Mathematical Mysteries by Ian Stewart  
 
Category: Popular Science  
Reviewer: John Lloyd  
Summary: Even with the dressing of a lengthy Conan Doyle spoof, this book is very laymanunfriendly, therefore both of high quality yet for high quality mathematical brains only.  
Buy? Maybe  Borrow? Maybe 
Pages: 300  Date: October 2014 
Publisher: Profile Books  
ISBN: 9781846683473  

Ah, those pesky number things. Not just Rogerson's Book of Numbers: The culture of numbers from 1001 Nights to the Seven Wonders of the World and how we have related to certain ones, but how they all relate to each other, and have provided mathematical scientists with thousands upon thousands of hours of thinking time. Just one problem in these pages has ended with not so much a checkable proof, but a third more data again than the entire Wikipedia project. Within this book are numbers far too big you would not even manage to write them out given the entire lifespan of the universe (and ones bigger than that) and problems wherein one must define as many integers as possible using merely 1s and mathematical symbols.
The problem for me with this book can be shown quite handily in that last example – despite my Agrade GCSE in maths a lot of the symbols were completely unknown to me; this book is clearly not for the layman, and would probably have Alevel students scratching their heads. Yes it can delve into the fun side of calculus (who knew?!) and I assume Stewart can convey most things clearly, but too much went whoosh over my head (probably in a neat parabolic curve, whose function can be defined as… sorry).
This being the third book of this type for Stewart I guess he has used up most of the gentler, more lighthearted examples already. He professes to put in jokes here, although none would make anyone at a comedy club laugh. I wanted more of the frivolous surprises that maths can bring – or indeed that you could bring to people with a bit of background knowledge. It's wellknown now how not to win a goat, and I have come across a couple of mathematical 'magic tricks' in books such as this before now. I'll concede this book does tell you how to arrange a team of rowing 8s the mathematical way, and there is a trick of a kind involving a rigged deck of cards I might try out on people given the chance, but for a lot of this I was out of my depths, and if not failing to see the point then certainly getting stymied by the details around the relevant formulae. Stewart shows his workings as all good schoolchildren must, but boy they still make you work.
With perhaps an eye to the complexity of this, and with it being the third book in the series, Stewart a lot of the time adopts the persona of Dr Watsup, conveying the sleuthing goingson of a certain Victorian detective, who sees relevant clues in unique patterns of gift box etc, and guides Watsup through some tougher mathematical thinking with the expected braggadocio and confidence. This did perhaps make the book more enjoyable to read, but did allow for longueurs when simple posers were presented after a page of flannel and buildup. I can easily see the person for whom this book is like gold dust – someone keenest on sitting and trying to get their head round a lot before turning to the provided solutions. This book will be black by the time some people finish it. For me, however, even with the inclusion of empty Sudokutype puzzles to solve from the ground up, I just read it AZ. That errant solver salivating over things, and this book itself, is of a specialism way beyond me.
I must still thank the publishers for my review copy.
Last time round we had a Hoard of Mathematical Treasures, but we have seen many favourable books from this author since then. Standard Deviations by Gary Smith will engage with its showcasing of the misuse of lies, damn lies and statistics.
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