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Mike Riley

Dr. Dobb's Bloggers

The Math Book Review

September 27, 2009

Occasionally I like to take a break from programming books to read titles that appeal to my technical passions.  I just finished reading a delightful new book by Dr. Clifford Pickover called The Math Book.  Read on for my review.

Unlike other math history books, the Math Book is a truly enjoyable read, approachable by anyone with a curiosity of how numbers have shaped the world we live in.  Beginning with 'The Ant Odometer' estimated to be over 150 million years old to 2007's Mathematical Universe Hypothesis, the author presents 250 math-related milestones throughout the history of the world.  Each milestone is presented in a beautiful two-page format: a clear, laymen's description of the discovery on the left page and a stunning, full-color representation of the mathematical model, artifact or portrait of the discoverer on the right.  Each left page is formatted the same - the year of the discovery in the left margin, the name of the discovery, the person(s) who uncovered the mathematical concept, formula or theorem, several paragraphs describing the discovery (often accompanied by several remarkable yet relatively unknown facts behind the find), a 'See Also' footer that references related discoveries, and a caption at the bottom of each page describing the selected image that accompanies each entry.  The format is concise enough to read several entries in one sitting, while stimulating enough to spend time with each one.  Doing so permits the concepts to percolate, savored and appreciated.  This is unlike any math book I've read before.

Having written over 40 books, Dr. Pickover has refined the craft of making sophisticated concepts approachable by the average reader, and keeps the text exciting enough to maintain reader's interest and enthusiasm about learning more.  I learned a number of not so trivial facts and fascinating background stories about mathematical constructs.  Many of these include popular icons so prevalent in tech culture like Euler's Number in 1727, the Möbius Strip in 1858 and the Klein Bottle it inspired nearly 25 years later.  I discovered that the Flatland concept was much older than I thought (1884), and was surprised to learn how renowned computer scientist Donald Knuth is related to the popular code-breaking game, Mastermind.  There are so many unique facts and stories collected in this work that it demands to be re-read.  The educational journey it offers is so memorable and rewarding.

Incidentally, the book's structured format reminded me of another title that I really enjoyed earlier this year, The Geek Atlas.  Thus, anyone who found that book to be as entertaining and informative as I did will find The Math Book to be just as stimulating, if not more so.  In addition to being a book that anyone with an interest in history and numbers would enjoy, The Math Book would make a memorable gift for any person in a technical field (especially in the realm of computers).  I highly recommend this book and look forward to future compilations that Dr. Pickover may have on the horizon.



Title:  The Math Book
Author:  Clifford Pickover
Publisher: Sterling Publishing
ISBN: 978-1-4027-5796-9
Price: $29.95


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