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Friday, December 13, 2013

Move Over, Clifford Pickover


Richard Elwes has a new volume out, "Math In 100 Key Breakthroughs," that I'd add to the Holiday math book shopping list I've already posted. It's a bit reminiscent of Cliff Pickover's "The Math Book" -- I like a lot of Pickover's stuff, and he was kind enough to do an interview for me here, but I was never greatly enamored of that particular volume from Cliff, despite its wide success and popularity -- I do however like Elwes' effort to combine math text and gorgeous graphics in a delicious way, that flows along nicely.

Elwes' book runs essentially in chronological order and while the first third didn't grab my interest that much, covering earlier math history, it gets more interesting with coverage of more modern mathematics (say starting with Newton onward). The text is again (like Cliff's book) on the pithy side, but a bit more substantive than the latter; and I always find Elwes to be one of the very best, clearest, current explicators of mathematical ideas for a lay audience… all the more reason I wish he had gone just a tad more deeply into some of the subjects addressed here.
Still, the volume represents, I think, a splendid introduction to the variety and range of mathematics, especially for a young person with such inclinations. It is already 400 pages long (perhaps at least 1/3rd of that from graphics/pictures), so maybe further, pedagogic text would've added too much. While organized into 100 chapters or "breakthroughs," each chapter covers multiple specific topics, so there's a lot more than 100 topics touched upon here, and more, I think, than is covered in Pickover's choppy volume of 250 "milestones."

My one beef with the book is that there is no bibliography included (Cliff's book has one at the end)… or even better yet, would have been a "for further study" listing following each chapter, referencing sources to further the reader's interest/knowledge if so inclined. One might argue that because anyone can Google any subject these days and find copious additional material, such bibliographic references are no longer needed… but it is exactly because Google returns such copious, ill-prioritized suggestions, that a honed list of excellent selections from the author would be valuable.

Anyway, I highly recommend this beautiful book, especially if you liked Pickover's more coffee-table-like version… OR, even moreso if you didn't find Pickover's volume satisfying, but still fancy the concept of combining wide-ranging, informative mathematical text with beautiful illustrations.

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