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A Dingo Ate My Math Book: Mathematics from Down Under

Burkard Polster and Marty Ross
American Mathematical Society
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Michael Berg
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From the very title of this terrific book, the reader knows what’s coming. It’s the Aussies at work, or rather at play. And you gotta love it.

The authors, Burkard Polster and Marty Ross,

each week would write about math in the news [“from 2004 to 2014 in Australia’s Age newspaper”], providing a new look at old favorites, mathematical history, quirks of school mathematics — whatever took their fancy. All articles were written for a general audience, with the intention of being as inviting as possible and assuming a minimum of mathematical background. [From the back cover]

Accordingly, the book is a collection of 64 chapters on everything under the hot Australian mathematical sun, arranged into 13 equivalence classes. The latter sport such titles as “A day in Australia,” “Aussie heroes,” “Melbourne, City of Mathematics,” and “The Australian math wars.” But there’s also, what is certainly my favorite, namely: “Keeping the bastards honest,” and even something called “TV snacks.” Here are, respectively, elements from each of the aforementioned equivalence classes: Ch. 5, “A Greek in an Italian Restaurant,” Ch. 13, “A prime mathematician” (Australia’s Terry Tao), Ch. 22, “The Klein Bottle Beach House,” Ch. 58, “The paradox of Australian mathematics education,” “Ch. 32, “Do prime ministers share their birthday cake?,” and Ch. 50, “How to murder a mathematician.” With even just this cross section in place, you get idea: this is bound to be a hell of a lot of fun, mate.

Indeed, let’s take a closer look at (what else?) Chapter 50. It starts as follows:

In ‘Hot House,’ an episode of Australia’s crime show City Homicide, two mathematicians were murdered. We [the authors, Polster and Ross] helped murder them.

Turn the page and read:

We included lots of the Riemann zeta function and related questions, most of which we didn’t really understand … We also needed to fill the whiteboards of a young student. Those were easier and more fun, and we made sure to include as many gems as possible: the golden ratio, the sieve of Eratosthenes, \(0.99999\dots = 1\), and many more. And we made sure to include a very prominent QEDcat [p. 174] in the middle of the board. We’re delighted that our mascot has now made it to the silver screen.

And the we get: “The real fun was in decorating the corpses…” But that’s enough said for now: just go to p. 175 for the rest. And then you might also consider this link:

This marvelous book is indeed full of all sorts of great stuff, from chatty articles like the immediately preceding one, to puzzles, real (but generally accessible) mathematics, sundry biographical articles, and of course loads and loads of Australiana. I love this book, be it to browse, or to read. And I can’t imagine it failing to charm anyone. 

Michael Berg is Professor of Mathematics at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, CA.