It's not often I get misty-eyed reading a book about mathematics, but that was just what happened when I read this, and several other poems, in the poetry collection Strange Attractors: Poems of love and mathematics.
When Number story first landed on my desk I was struck by its prettiness. With its tasteful and slightly old-fashioned cover design, the unusually compact format for a hardback, and the unassuming title, this book clearly isn't desperate for attention. So I was intrigued to find out whether this quiet confidence is justified by its content, and I'm glad to report that it is.
We've all been there. You're in a bar with a group of friends. The night draws in. The empties pile up. The conversation turns to sublime speculation and ridiculous argument. How many golf balls would you need to circle the Earth? What's the risk of being killed by a shark? How efficient is wind power? How far does your average Premiership footballer run in a game? How can we put an end to all these questions and go home?
Symmetry abounds: the wallpaper, your chair, even your own body. Familiar types of symmetry include reflection in a line and rotation about a point. Creating a repeating pattern by translating a core segment to a new place, common in wallpaper, also counts as a symmetry, as does switching without the use of a mirror from an anticlockwise segment to one otherwise identical but oriented clockwise.
"Oh god, I hope not," was the reaction of a student when Livio asked the title question at a lecture, and it's a reaction that's likely to be replicated by many unsuspecting bookshop browsers. But despite its frightening title, the book's appeal could not be broader.
I would guess that, even a decade ago, the phrase "mathematical recreation" would have been considered a contradiction in terms. Now, in the age of compulsive Sudoku puzzlers, and an increasing canon of popular mathematics books, this descriptor has become credible.