cover image The Spirit of Mathematics: Algebra and All That

The Spirit of Mathematics: Algebra and All That

David Acheson. Oxford Univ, $18.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-19-284508-5

In this muddled offering, Acheson (The Wonder Book of Geometry), an emeritus fellow at the University of Oxford, comes up short in attempting to demonstrate the marvelous qualities of mathematics. He explores basic algebra, geometry, and logic via math trivia and by working through word problems. Some topics are accessible, such as when Acheson uses visuals to show why the formula for the area of a circle works or describes why subtracting a three-digit number from its reverse and then adding the result to its own reverse almost always equals 1,089. Mixed in among the explications of magic squares and imaginary numbers are tidbits of math history about Euclid’s contributions to geometry and the convoluted story behind Girolamo Cardano’s publication of the cubic equation in 1545. However, those who find algebra intimidating will likely get lost in the detailed mathematical notation (an involved discussion of the forces involved in playing snooker is particularly dense) and the truncated explanations, which sometimes skip steps or leave reasoning unexplained. The math problems give this the feel of an abbreviated textbook, but the overviews are too rudimentary to serve academic purposes. This doesn’t quite find its footing. (Feb.)