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Professor Stewart's Incredible Numbers

Ian Stewart
Basic Books
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Ittay Weiss
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As the author makes clear from the outset, this is indeed not a book about numbers. It is a wonderful journey through some of mathematics’ pivotal results, with side excursions to some less often visited realms of mathematics. Along the way we encounter a wide array of familiar and less familiar numbers.

The expected numbers \(\pi\), \(e\), \(\varphi\), and \(\gamma\) are all, obviously, here. More mundane numbers, such as the first ten counting numbers, are here as well but with clever and beautiful links to mathematics that make these numbers far less boring than what one may initially expect. Less expected numbers met along the way include \(466/885\) and \(26!\), each a window to one or more fascinating results and an intriguing story. The numbers span through small and large, rational and irrational, finite and infinite. There is even a guest appearance of the Douglas Adams constant: \(42\). As it turns out, it is not boring at all.

The book is crafted with great enthusiasm, resulting in a delightful reading experience encompassing countless results and areas of classical and current research. The prerequisites are virtually nonexistent. The book does not get into technical details (with only a handful of exceptions of slight delving into equations or mathematical details). Consequently this not a book from which to learn mathematics. It is, however, a book to learn about mathematics, a book that mathematicians are highly likely to read with pleasure — a book one reads to expand one’s appreciation of the culture of mathematics and a book to pique one’s curiosity more often than not.

The book can be read in practically any order, though there is some added value in following the order chosen by the author. The book’s intended audience is clearly the lay-person and as such the amount of new material that a mathematician will find in it may be rather limited. With false expectations thus removed, I can wholeheartedly recommend the book, particularly to students, as greatly entertaining reading for the enrichment of one’s (mathematical) soul.

Ittay Weiss is Lecturer of Mathematics at the School of Computing, Information and Mathematical Sciences of the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji.

The table of contents is not available.