book review

Ballet and mathematics - not a combination that you often come across, but one that works beautifully in Frederick Ashton's 1948 ballet, Scénes de ballet. From the geometric patterns on the men's tunics and the perpendicular angle of the ballerina's tutu, to the movements and positioning of the dancers themselves, this ballet is a celebration of mathematics. Ashton was inspired by mathematics, and, according to the programme notes, used a system of Euclidean geometry to choreograph the piece.
One of Oxford University Press's series of "Short Introductions", this book is a rigorous and challenging description, by one of the greatest pure mathematicians alive (Timothy Gowers is Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, and a Fields Medal recipient), of what mathematics is. Perhaps too challenging, in fact - on page 23 we are introduced to an axiomatisation of number systems, and things only get tougher. Clearly, as one of a highly intellectual series, the book is intended to stretch its readers' abilities to the utmost.
Gerd Gigerenzer is not a mathematician or statistician per se, but primarily a psychologist, working across disciplines to understand how human beings make decisions in the face of uncertainty. What he offers here is nothing less than a prescription for how to think, how to choose, and how to live, when the information on which we base our decisions is necessarily incomplete and flawed. For example - how worried should you be if you have a positive mammogram as part of a screening programme for breast cancer, or a positive HIV test despite the fact that you are in a low-risk group?
Paul Erdös is reported to have said "A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems". We may never know if he appreciated the mathematics behind the perfect dunk of a biscuit into said coffee, but we can all begin to understand the ubiquity of maths in our lives, thanks to Len Fisher's delightful book. The subtitle is "The science of everyday life", though pretty much all the content is maths with the equations (mostly) taken out. Perhaps Professor Fisher was advised that sales would suffer if they weren't, but anyone interested in the applications of mathematics to the real world will find plenty to amuse and educate.

Since the phenomenal success of "The little book of calm", publishers have been falling over themselves to produce "little books" of everything else, presumably in the hope that the essential ingredient was the littleness, rather than the calmness. Although, at 5 inches by 7¼, "1089 and all that" makes a rather big little book, and its content couldn't be further from the banalities of "The little book of calm", there is something of a "little book of mathematics" about it, with its short chapters and personal narrative.

During September and October, the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences showed a small exhibition of two suites of photo-etchings with mathematical components by the Canadian artist Catherine M Stewart, who studied both maths and physics in the course of her undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto. Elements of Grace is a collection of 12 photo-etchings which combine diagrams from Newton's Principia Mathematica (1729) with photodetails of the human body.
Despite its title, Carl Djerassi's latest play, Calculus, is more like a lesson in history or even psychology than one in mathematics. This is because Djerassi's intention was to explore the moral calculus that was involved in the discovery of the mathematical technique, rather than the technique itself.
Anyone who thought geometry was boring or dry should prepare to be amazed. Despite its worthy cover this book is exactly what its title says - a story - and the plot of this story involves life, death and revolutions of understanding and belief, and stars the some of the most famous names in history.
Euclid defined what later became known as the Golden Ratio thus: A straight line is said to have been cut in extreme and mean ratio when, as the whole line is to the greater segment, so is the greater to the lesser.
First the executive summary: read these excellent books, and make sure all your friends and relations and bright pupils (if you are a teacher) or teachers (if a bright pupil) do so too. Mathematical Vistas (MV) is the sequel to the same authors' earlier Mathematical Reflections (MR). Each book is a series of explorations of mathematical topics, informed by a definite idea of what mathematics is, and how it should be taught.
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