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A New Year’s Present from a Mathematician

Snezana Lawrence
Publisher: 
Chapman and Hall/CRC
Publication Date: 
2019
Number of Pages: 
200
Format: 
Paperback
Price: 
39.95
ISBN: 
978-0367219369
Category: 
General
[Reviewed by
Michael Caulfield
, on
08/30/2020
]
A New Year’s Present From a Mathematician by Snezana Lawrence is intended to be a mathematical journey through the twelve months of the year.  For each month Lawrence chooses an event of significance (birth or the founding of a society, e.g.) and uses that event to frame the mathematical explorations of the chapter.  Illustrations are liberally included throughout the text.  At the end of the book, she expressed the hope that the images and tales found in the book will inspire the reader to both learn and do mathematics.
 
Each chapter tends to be wide-ranging, with brief introductions to topics including the theorems of Thales, the catenary, the Platonic solids, Bourbaki, and Flatland.  And the writing style is often quite fanciful.  In the December chapter, in which she discusses Kepler’s interest in shapes, Lawrence writes “Let us now get back to our snowflakes lest they disappear from our imagination and melt into an old memory.” (page 157)
 
The chapters include biographical details of the lives of the different mathematicians whose work is highlighted.  These tend not to be “standard” biographies.  Rather, Lawrence points out details that help the reader to get to know a little more about the mathematician, and which also serves to give context to the mathematics done by that individual.  For example, in January’s chapter, we read about Newton.  Lawrence places Newton’s birthday as January 4, owing to the calendar adopted in England in the eighteenth century.  In this chapter, Lawrence delves into poems written about Newton, his list of repentances found in one of his notebooks, and his interest in the concept of change.  She shows the reader that it was this interest that led Newton to study laws of motion and to found the Calculus.
 
The topics within a chapter flow from one to the next with only the loosest of organizing principles:  the date identified at the beginning of the chapter.  The author’s point is to introduce the reader to a wide variety of topics.  Her point is not to treat any of these topics in a systematic way.  For this reason the book is best suited to the mathematical novice.  Still, there are likely to be bits of information here that even readers quite knowledgeable about the mathematician may have missed in the past.  For example, Maria Agnesi wrote a treatise in Latin defending the education of women – when she was nine years old!  It was also enlightening to find how mathematically accomplished the Boole family was, despite their lack of formal training.
 
The book includes a good index and an extensive bibliography.  Unfortunately, end notes are used for each chapter rather than footnotes, necessitating much flipping back and forth.  And in some cases, the end notes essentially repeat information that was already found in the text of the chapter. 
 
A New Year’s Present From a Mathematician is certainly written for a most general audience.  It provides an introduction to a great variety of mathematically interesting and important concepts as if the author and reader are on a journey through the year.  It can be a fine read especially for the uninitiated, while even the professional may find nuggets of interest scattered throughout. 

 

Michael Caulfield (caulfiel001@gannon.edu) is a Professor of Mathematics at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania.  His writing is focused on mathematical topics of historical interest.  His career in mathematics began when he was a member of an “Outstanding” team in the COMAP Mathematical Contest in Modeling.

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