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Professor Stewart's Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities

Ian Stewart
Basic Books
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Charles Ashbacher
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Even though I have been amused and educated for years by the writings of Ian Stewart, in this case I was somewhat underwhelmed. It's not that the writing is bad or the mathematics wrong or inherently uninteresting; rather, the problem is that it was nearly all material that I have seen before, in some cases many times.

Stewart opens with an explanation that the contents of this book are based on a series of math notebooks that he has kept for decades, starting when he was fourteen. It is not a notebook of major theorems and discoveries, the contents are all short snippets that he encountered and wrote down for future reference. Some of the golden (very) oldies are:

  • The bridges of Konigsberg
  • Hilbert’s hotel
  • The farmer crossing the river with a wolf, goat and cabbages
  • The Monty Hall problem
  • The Game of Life invented by John Conway
  • The basics of fractals
  • The dissection that appears to convert 64 square units into 65 square units
  • The “surprise” examination based on faulty reasoning by the students
  • Basic chaos theory
  • The Möbius band
  • The theorem that all numbers are interesting
  • The Fibonacci numbers

At times, the best ideas become stale to us, not because the ideas are no longer useful, but because our minds are so accustomed to them. Therefore, if you are like me and a bit stale (experienced) then this book most likely will be a routine read. However, if you are fresh, then you will experience much of the breadth of mathematics and be encouraged to explore the depths.

Charles Ashbacher splits his time between consulting with industry in projects involving math and computers, teaching college classes and co-editing The Journal of Recreational Mathematics. In his spare time, he reads about these things and helps his daughter in her lawn care business.

The table of contents is not available.