Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Magical Maze: Seeing the World Through Mathematical Eyes by Ian Stewart .

This book was written in 1997 and I downloaded a free copy onto my Kindle although it is no longer available on Amazon for some reason. The book uses the metaphor of a maze to explore how our world is related to mathematics. It is not a text book on pure mathematics but an easy read on applied mathematics - how our world follows mathematical rules. It does explain the beauty of mathematics and is very easy to understand. The aim of this book is clear.

Ian leads the reader through a number of problems that make you think. All becomes clear and you then understand how those magic tricks of guessing numbers actually work.

• Think of a number.
• Add ten. Double the result. Subtract six.
• Divide by two. Take away the number you first thought of.
• The answer is seven. Always.

The ancient Tower of Bramah puzzle is worked through by first looking at the smaller Tower of Hanoi puzzle. The process you use is the same and leads to the mathematical motto of "think first, calculate later".

Have you noticed that when you get a big group of people, a couple share the same birthday? Yes, if the group is greater than 23, you will get 2 people whose birthdays match. Why is this when there are 365 days in the year and the group is as small as 23? Ian explains the mathematics behind it and states "Amazing. I know how to calculate it, and I still have difficulty  believing it. But it's true. Try it at parties with over 23 people. Take bets.  In the long run, you'll win. At big parties you'll win easily".

There is a good section that deals with conditional probabilities and what game show contestants should consider to double their chances of winning the prize. This calculation fooled a lot of educated people who should know better! The contestant has 3 choices hidden behind closed doors. One door hides a car, the other two hide goats. I will not spoil the answer for you as this tale shows how conditional probabilities are not especially intuitive.

Ian explains why all coastlines look the same, which is strange when the structures appear so random. Chaos is not as random and you first think because coastlines are 'statistically  self-similar'. The same mathematics applies to vegetables like broccoli.

Ian does show the beauty of mathematics in everyday life but he does go into extreme detail and history. Ian does not give any conscise answers and fills his book with tons of background from mathematicians who are long gone and dead. Ian is an expert in his field and can get his message across but it is a long journey.

93% of this Kindle eBook is the content of his work but the last 7% is references he has referred to earlier. The average reader will not need to know his sources so that they can check them, you can take them in good faith. I feel that this book has not covered an awful lot of ground but the small ground it has covered has been drilled to death. The reading pleasure I got from this book was poor as the number of mathematical issues covered was small. I did not like the employment of the maze metaphor as the detailed description of hedges, walls etc had little to do with mathematics and just padded the book out wasting the readers time.

I really enjoy applied mathematics but this book was a disappointment. It was not a good daily read and although Ian maybe a good teacher of mathematics, he is not a good author. I did not like the way this book was written. I did not like it's structure, the way Ian waffled on about mathematicians who were dead and gone. I really hated his stupid idea of a maze that the reader had to travel through. It was not an entertaining read and therefore failed as a book. This is all a shame as I had seen a programme on television some time ago about numbers and I am sure it was Ian Stewart who presented it. That television programme I really enjoyed as it showed how our world revolves around mathematical rules. I was glued to the television series and thought it was a hit. But this book is poor and I shall only vote it 2 stars on Goodreads .

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