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Professor Stewart's Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities

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What a disappointment after "Flatterland"!

  • Dec 17, 2009
  • by
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Professor Stewart seemed to have the devil's own time finding a balance that would appeal to fans of popular mathematics. Much of his "Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities" is positively pedestrian and, frankly, quite boring - riddles we've all heard before; high school geometry; combinatorial curiosities such as the number of ways to shuffle a pack of cards or the number of different sudoku puzzles that exist; school age party tricks based on nothing fancier than public school arithmetic; and, a real yawner for goodness' sake, a dreary listing of constants such as e, the square root of 2 or pi to 50 decimal places ... my, my and ho hum!

At the other end of the scale, Stewart included complex summary essays on cutting edge mathematical topics as advanced and esoteric as the Riemann Hypothesis, fractional dimensions, Zeta functions, the Goldbach conjecture and so on. I don't think of myself as mathematically challenged by any means but (and this is strictly my opinion) I believe many of these essays are pitched at a level that would bewilder a young bright-eyed mathematician fresh off the earning of an undergraduate degree.

It was the merest handful of essays that found that brilliant middle ground that challenged, entertained and educated - Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem; the Poincaré Conjecture; a discussion of Hilbert's Hotel and the cardinality of infinities put forward by Cantor; Bessel functions and the differences in the "quality" or "timbre" of the sounds generated by the shape of a drum as opposed to merely its pitch. But these successes were precious few and far between.

High expectations dashed on the shores of mediocrity. Not recommended!

Paul Weiss

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