Professor Stewart’s Incredible Numbers by Ian Stewart

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Professor Stewart’s Incredible Numbers by Ian Stewart

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Category: Popular Science
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Liz Green
Reviewed by Liz Green
Summary: An entertaining romp through maths from prime numbers to string theory.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: March 2015
Publisher: Profile books
ISBN: 978-1781254103

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Incredible Numbers starts off easily enough, with a really interesting look at numbers as seen by the earliest people, before moving on to a brief explanation of natural numbers, rational numbers, negative numbers and complex and prime numbers. Subsequent chapters revisit old friends such as Pythagoras’s theorem, the Fibonacci cube, negative numbers, pi and quadratic equations, and other lesser known concepts such as kissing numbers, imaginary numbers and the winsomely-named Sausage Conjecture.

Each chapter launches into its subject relatively gently but the going gets tough quite quickly and I found, repeatedly, that my very rusty A level maths just didn’t cut the mustard. However, I suspect that’s more down to memory lapse than to anything else – readers with more recent maths knowledge would undoubtedly get far more from this book than those whose knowledge is patchy or, as in my case, decades old. And at times I felt that Professor Stewart jumped a little, assuming particular knowledge that I’m quite sure I never had. This is where a glossary would have helped enormously – a brief explanation of terms that could be referred to when necessary. An index would have been nice, too, although its omission was perhaps deliberate, to provide distance from other, more academic tomes.

The Prof writes engagingly at all times and has a delightful enthusiasm for his subject. As in his other books, he manages here to popularise maths and make it accessible to a wider range of people than has previously been the case - and this is no mean feat. There are some wonderful nuggets of information that would form a great basis for quiz questions. The four colour theorem, for example, states that with only four colours you can colour in any map whatsoever, such that regions with a common border have different colours. There’s also a short – and clearly explained - chapter on the maths of codes, cyphers and the Enigma machine.

Incredible Numbers makes for fascinating reading, but only for somebody with a good grasp of maths or, at the very least, a decent mathematical brain. To be fair, you probably wouldn’t consider this book if you had neither of these things. To the numerically-challenged, reading this book might seem like rather hard work. But if you’re prepared to make the effort, you’ll find it gives you a far-reaching introduction to the world of maths, from ancient concepts right up to string theory, and you’ll be well rewarded.

For more mathematical mayhem from the Prof, take a look at his 17 Equations That Changed The World. And in a similar vein but by a different author, try Alex's Adventures In Numberland by Alex Bellos. We think you'll also enjoy Professor Stewart's Casebook of Mathematical Mysteries.

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