Skip to main content

Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension - Matt Parker ****

Anyone who has seen Matt Parker perform standup maths as I have (with the excellent Festival of the Spoken Nerd) will immediately recognise the style of this entertaining recreational-ish maths book: an easy, if slightly obsessive communication style, warm and friendly and with a slightly groan-making sense of humour.

I absolutely loved the title, although in a way it's a bit of a let down, as their are relatively few things to 'make and do' here - it is mostly straightforward recreational mathematics - though you certainly can't fault the promise of dealing with the fourth dimension, as well as the fifth, sixth and  196,883rd dimension (and that not one of the joky bits - this is genuinely significant).

Like most rec maths books, while it's clear that the author finds it all fascinating I found some captivating, some vaguely interesting and some a touch 'meh'. But as long as you accept that not all of it will work for you and you might have to skip a few bits and pieces, it has some absolute gems. From interesting ways to cut up pizzas via computers made with dominos (see my blog post on mechanical computing) and those many dimensional shapes to networks, variants of Möbius strips I've never seen before and an equation that plots as the equation itself there's truly mind boggling stuff. I particularly loved the bit about the secret checking mechanisms in barcodes and VAT numbers (but that's just me) and I'm sure you'll have your own favourites.

Perhaps the weakest parts of the book are the dips into mathematical history. Parker falls for the usual problem of over-egging what was done in 'programming' the non-existent Analytical Engine, and his quick whiz through some of the big names of maths towards the end of the book seems a little out of place with the rest. He acknowledges maths history is a 'bit like herding porridge', but I'm not sure this section adds a lot to the book.

It's interesting to compare TtMaitFD with the work of the hyper-productive Ian Stewart, probably our best known living maths populariser. Despite his light style, Parker took significant risks in going into more depth than Stewart often does in his rec maths books, and I think the gamble pays off, though it may bamboozle some readers. Parker certainly gives Stewart a run for his money and packs plenty in. Recreational maths doesn't work for everyone, but for the naturally geeky this book has a distinct appeal.


Paperback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Conjuring the Universe - Peter Atkins *****

It's rare that I'd use the term 'tour de force' when describing a popular science book, but it sprang to mind when I read Conjuring the Universe. It's not that the book's without flaws, but it does something truly original in a delightful way. What's more, the very British Peter Atkins hasn't fallen into the trap that particularly seems to influence US scientists when writing science books for the public of assuming that more is better. Instead of being an unwieldy brick of a book, this is a compact 168 pages that delivers splendidly on the question of where the natural laws came from.

The most obvious comparison is Richard Feynman's (equally compact) The Character of Physical Law - but despite being a great fan of Feynman's, this is the better book. Atkins begins by envisaging a universe emerging from absolutely nothing. While admitting he can't explain how that happened, his newly created universe still bears many resemblances to  nothing a…

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Big Bang (Ladybird Expert) - Marcus Chown ****

As a starting point in assessing this book it's essential to know the cultural background of Ladybird books in the UK. These were a series of cheap, highly illustrated, very thin hardbacks for children, ranging from storybooks to educational non-fiction. They had become very old-fashioned, until new owners Penguin brought back the format with a series of ironic humorous books for adults, inspired by the idea created by the artist Miriam Elia. Now, the 'Ladybird Expert' series are taking on serious non-fiction topics for an adult audience.

Marcus Chown does a remarkable job at packing in information on the big bang, given only around 25 sides of small format paper to work with. He gives us the concepts, plenty about the cosmic microwave background, plus the likes of dark energy, dark matter, inflation and the multiverse. To be honest, the illustrations were largely pointless, apart from maintaining the format, and it might have been better to have had more text - but I felt …