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Sunday, February 5, 2012

"The Math Book"… ho hum?…..


In recent years there have been a number of what I call math "nugget" books written for a mass audience -- books covering a range of interesting mathematical topics in a brief way, and introducing math to lay folks who might otherwise not give it much attention.  I've especially liked certain volumes from Tony Crilly and Richard Elwes that I've mentioned here previously. They do a good job of giving readers enough interesting material to chew on to possibly seduce them into further study, without overwhelming them.

Clifford Pickover is a well-known polymath (I would almost say poly-polymath) and math popularizer. He's authored several books I've enjoyed, and is just an all-around fascinating fellow! His "The Math Book," came out a couple of years back as a sort of "nugget"/coffee-table/math volume that met with wide acclaim and awards. I don't think I've read a single bad review of it! Still, I hesitated buying it because it just never much  enticed me despite frequent scans of it at my local bookstore. But, with a major discount coupon ;-), I did finally purchase it, and continue to have mixed feelings about it, including some difficulty recommending it to math fans, despite its wide acclaim.

But first let's cover the positives, since it is a book with so many fans. The style and format is beautiful; very glossy, very glitzy; very, as I say, coffee-tablish; unlike most math books. It also touches upon a very wide range of topics, or as the book says, "milestones" (250 by its own count), and does so in an organized, chronological way, that pulls the reader along from antiquity to modern times (although it need not be read from beginning to end, but can be read in a much more random order). The language and level of material is appropriate to a lay audience. Pickover's own love of math shines through on each page, and it seems clear that his goal for the book is not so much to educate people, as perhaps to imbue them with some of the same excitement about the field that he feels. Every page seems to say, 'Isn't this wondrous!'
All of that is obviously to the positive…

My problems with the volume however are these:

Starting with the practical: it is a thick, square, heavy book (especially the hard-back version), not conducive to reading in bed, on one's back, as I often like to do -- a small quibble to many, but for me a major drawback in what is essentially a 'pleasure' book, not a textbook. It's coffee-table quality almost makes it more a volume for show than for reading (which is unfortunate)... Stephen Hawking's "Brief History of Time" was called perhaps the most widely-selling, UNread book in publishing history -- I fear Pickover's book could suffer a similar fate (even though it is more readable than Hawking's). I realize Pickover is probably trying to reach out to a very broad audience, but for my taste it is simply TOO glossy and glitzy; almost gaudy, and almost a turn-off. Moreover, the short, bite-size text entries are simply too brief to really afford the reader much substantive information on the subjects at-hand. Whereas, Crilly and Elwes, give the reader enough, as I say, to chew on, Pickover often just scratches the surface here, instead of fleshing things out. Each page leaves me wanting more, and feeling shortchanged. Take away the artistic presentation and you are left largely with a pithy, somewhat pedantic regurgitation of quite interesting historical math tidbits, for which you need Google standing by if you wish to explore further… it's a somewhat "Cliff"Notes version of math history (...although I also realize Pickover likes to experiment with math writing styles and presentation -- still, this volume seems a bit of a 'puff-piece' compared to some of his other fine works, and it would be ashamed, I think, if he became better known for this book than his other contributions). Overall, I am still glad I bought the book, as a reference source... but am also glad I got it at a heavy discount ;-))

In short, I can recommend this volume to young people beginning their journey in mathematics, as a sort of starter book, an initiation into the field of math, but am more reluctant recommending it to readers who are further-along, for whom there may be many better selections... including fuller text and less glitz. Still, many may (and clearly DO) find its style, format, elegance, and sheer breadth of topics, captivating enough to want it for their bookshelf (...or coffee table) -- indeed, mine seems to be a minority view; those who are particularly enamored of this book, feel free to chime in, in the comments, about what makes it so laudable or useful from your standpoint…

(Also, if you DO like this offering from Pickover, it is worth noting that he followed it up with a similarly-styled volume called "The Physics Book.")

By the way, the books I cited above from Crilly and Elwes that I very much liked and do recommend are:

"The Big Questions: Mathematics" and  "50 Mathematical Ideas You Really Need to Know" -- both by Tony Crilly

and, "Mathematics Without the Boring Bits" -- by Richard Elwes
Also, Elwes did an even more encyclopedic/comprehensive volume of math topics than Pickover's book, called "Mathematics 1001," but minus the glossiness -- I prefer the Elwes offering, if you're looking for terse treatments, but understand it won't carry the popular appeal of Pickover's effort.

Finally, for anyone who especially likes Pickover's book for its 'historical' format, I might just mention that Pat Ballew does a wonderful job of regularly noting mathematics history in his "On this Day in Math" entries over at "Pat's Blog."

1 comment:

.mau. said...

I have always been wary of Pickover either :-), so I did not get the book.

I heartily recommend "50 Mathematical Ideas You Really Need to Know" and "Mathematics 1001" (or "Maths 1001" in case you are buying it in Europe :-) ) too!