Review by Lydia Hales
Before opening 100 Essential Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Maths and the Arts, I thought I was quite content not knowing the things I didn’t know about mathematics. Not that learning for the sake of learning is a bad thing, but mathematics is something I’ve tended (probably unfairly) to think of as being like tequila: wonderful to the rare soul who actually enjoys the taste and knows how to handle it, and disastrous for the the rest of the population, who try to bluff their way through and instead find themselves curled in the foetal position and sobbing for someone else to fix the mess they’re in.
But for most of the book, the mathematical terminology Barrow uses is short and simple enough that you don’t have time to get confused. He has included diagrams and illustrations in most of the chapters – some so that you can visualise the calculations or ratios he describes, and in other cases to simply break up the text. There was an occasional section where I found my attention wandering, though this is probably more a failing of mine in sticking with a (short) chapter on something I found less interesting, rather than a reflection of Barrow’s writing. There were also some sections I found incredibly poignant, for example: The Beginning of the Universe Live on TV, where Barrow explains how a small percentage of the ‘snow’ on older models of TV is provided by the Cosmic Background Radiation (CMB) from the beginnings of the universe. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a more lovely way to think of TV interference.
Each chapter acts as a stand-alone snippet, ranging across topics such as how the shape of different birds’ eggs suit their different nesting environments, the calculations of the perfect cut for a diamond, or the apparent ability of ballerinas to ‘hang’ in the air at the top of a leap. If you’re a public transport commuter, this book is a perfect one to whip out on trains or buses – not that it isn’t something you’ll appreciate sitting down to purposefully read, but the structure of it lends itself perfectly to diving in during short breaks, without needing to retrace to familiarise yourself in a plot line.
You may find yourself looking at every-day things you’d not thought to question, and suddenly starting to think more deeply about their design, or finding a new appreciation for it now that you know more about how it works.
In this way, the book achieves what a ‘good’ book does: it not only teaches you a few things, but it also leads you to look at the world in a different way.
Lydia Hales is a science writer at Science in Public and freelance science/health journalist. She has been published by ABC Science, ABC Health & Wellbeing, Australian Geographic, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
When she isn’t reading or writing about science she’s probably reading or writing about something else.