Math Type

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Book Review: The Math Book by Clifford Pickover

The Math Book by Clifford Pickover was a good read.  The book goes through history and talks about the relevant mathematical findings.  Pickover starts from c. 150 million years B.C. and works his way up to 2007.  Pickover, in his introduction, states that he realizes that some of the discoveries not mentioned may be more important than the ones that he states, but this is his own opinion on the most significant findings and the ones he enjoyed learning about the most.

The book has a good structure.  Each new page is a new "section" and is completely independent from the previous or next page.  Each page also has an accompanying picture that, in some ways, tries to help the reader in their understanding of the subject.  Pickover, in each entry, tries to give some background about the subject and who discovered it and also tries to explain some what the discovery did or is doing for math now.  Each section is short and easy to read, which makes the book a fast read and not too time intensive to read through.

The book did some things well.  The book did a good job going over many topics (249 in total) relatively fast and briefly.  This book gives the reader a good sense of what has been done in math since c. 150 million years B.C.  The book also does a good job trying to link together many of the subjects talked about.  Each page has bolded words that refer the reader to other passages with similar context or to help the reader with an understanding on how the discovery was made (usually due to something earlier in the book).  At the end of each page, you can use the references to find other similar works if reading this book for a leisure read and wanting to gain more knowledge on a specific topic.  Pickover does do a good job of explaining who discovered each mathematical finding too.  He gives a very brief history on the person (i.e. who they are, their nationality, their race/religion, etc.) so that the reader can gain a respect for the breadth of math.  I believe that Pickover does this because he wants the reader to understand that math is discovered everywhere and by all types of people, yet sometimes he can bog down the reader with the details.  The most interesting part of this book, which was sometimes the most frustrating too, was the "paradoxes" and "problems" that Pickover places in the book.  I had an easy time understanding some of the "paradoxes" and/or "problems," but other times, like other sections, I just had no idea what was going on and so I would just skim over the reading and not understand it.  The "paradoxes" and "problems" that I did understand were very interesting though.  I found myself waiting to read the answer until giving myself sufficient time to try and find the answer (or have a guess) myself.  It made the book more fun to read and gave a break from the strictly math sections of the book.

The book also has many things that I would change.  There are frequently (more so toward the end of the book) pages and sections that I would leave out entirely.  For the standard student, some sections are either WAY over their head, way to rudimentary, or just plain boring.  The book would therefore go into way too much detail or just not enough at all.  I found that some sections I would finish the page description and leave with a "what?" or "I don't understand this at all" feel.  After talking to some other students reading the book, they felt the same way.  On the other hand, the pages that were just plain simple, I felt like the discovery was important, but the details not so much because they are self explanatory (i.e. a least squares line he goes into a two paragraph description of what it is).  Another thing that I would change about the book is the amount of background given for each section.  Sometimes the amount of background given for a particular section would overtake the math of the section and cause me to miss the overall reason for the section in the book.  The background, while I understand is sometimes necessary, would just be too in-depth.  A more brief background would have benefited me more and then if I was interested in the subject I would look up more.  The last thing that I did not like about the book was the amount of quotes given from other mathematicians about a particular work.  These added nothing to the sections.  Sometimes it seemed that Pickover would add these quotes just because he realized that a finding was important, but didn't understand if fully and so he would take up space on the page with these quotes.  I found that by the end of the book, almost any time something was quoted from some other mathematician I would completely skip the quote because it added nothing to my understanding and was a waste of my time to read it.

While it may seem that I had a lot of complaints about the book, I did highly enjoy reading it.  I found that as I was reading about things I would be able to link them to other things I have learned in math.  I also enjoyed learning about the history of math from another perspective.  If you can get past the critics I have on the book, I would suggest reading this book, as it was not a hard read and had some very interesting topics.


  1. Good representation of the book: feels fair. 5C's: +

  2. Kenton,

    After I heard your description of the book in class, I was intrigued. I like the idea of having small introductions with various math concepts, and being able to further explore what I like. I think it's interesting that, in such short sections, the author includes background on the topic, explains the topic, and introduces the "discoverer" of the idea at hand. You mention that for some topics the background would be too in-depth--I'd be interested to see if other sections could do with more depth. I would imagine that some topics would deserve much more than others, and I'm wondering how the author determined what to include about each.

    I'm hoping to read this book--I think that it could be a great launching point from which to delve into further research in math topics. Although I usually enjoy more thorough books, from your review it seems that The Math Book will give me enough information to determine whether I want to further investigate a topic.