Guardian and Telegraph writer and comedian Parker aims “to show people all the fun bits of mathematics.”
For starters, take out paper and pencil, compass, straight edge, maybe a balloon or a bag of oranges, because the author will challenge you to tackle puzzles, whether it’s cutting a pizza in equal slices so some pieces never touch the center or passing a quarter through a nickel-size hole. Parker begins with the easier elements like number systems, primes and the polygons of Euclidean geometry. But his approach has the acceleration of a Ferrari, so readers are quickly racing into higher dimensional space. Parker explains how a square becomes a cube in 3-D and a hypercube (a tesseract) in four dimensions or a doughnut (a torus) becomes an object called a Klein bottle. This branch of math is topology, but in arriving there, Parker makes forays into subfields like tiling (think bathroom floors), packing (how to ship oranges efficiently) and knot theory. Some readers will lose their way—the visualizations alone are tough. Also, by this point, it’s clear that the author does not aspire to create a math-for-dummies handbook. Instead, he provides one man’s take on the history of math, emphasizing the puzzles that led to profound discoveries or to tantalizing conjectures that remain neither proved nor disproved. But this one man is also a dedicated denizen of the digital universe, and some of the best parts of the book are Parker’s explanations of how computers work. This includes the feat in which he and math colleagues set up a field of thousands of dominoes to demonstrate how a computer adds two binary numbers. Parker goes on to explain how smartphones digitally code a photo and why a text sent across the globe arrives error-free despite all the relays along the way.
Parker should be commended. He may not convert all readers to loving math, but he does provide a glimmer of understanding of how it works.