David's Reviews > Group Theory in the Bedroom, and Other Mathematical Diversions

Group Theory in the Bedroom, and Other Mathematical Diversions by Brian Hayes
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Jun 10, 09

bookshelves: read-in-2009
Read in April, 2009

The twelve essays in this book were first published in American Scientist, the "magazine of Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society". The collection comes with the requisite dustjacket hype by Martin Gardner ( each essay is a gem of science writing at its highest level ), as well as a more ambiguous commendation by someone called Sarah Lippincott ( if you love numbers, grids and graphs, you'll love this book ). In the book's preface, Hayes treats us to a display of faux-humility ("Aw shucks, I'm not qualified") which is striking only for its transparent insincerity.

On balance, I'd have to agree with his assessment - it's not clear exactly what his qualifications are. But the word that comes to mind to describe the majority of these essays is 'woolly-headed' - there is a rambling, unfocused quality to them that leaves the reader questioning the time invested in reading them.

An exception to this criticism is the essay on the genetic code. Hayes's riff on the problem of mattress-flipping and its link to the Klein 4-group is imaginative and entertaining. Essays on the astronomical clock at Strasbourg and on the kinds of gear problems faced by watchmakers might appeal to some, but my pathological aversion to all things mechanical caused my eyes to glaze over pretty early on.

I found Hayes's ruminations on randomness, economics, and "the statistics of warfare" particularly weak - neither focused nor rigorous. Essays on the use of base 3, the meaning of identity and issues of nomenclature were coherent but uninspiring.

Two superior essays out of twelve seems a little disappointing, which is why I give this collection only two stars.

(To be fair, if my training had been in computer science, rather than in mathematics, I might have viewed these essays differently)
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Prashanth Nuggehalli Srinivas Nice review. But, perhaps what ruined it for you is your mathematics training! Although rambling at places, and sometimes unfocussed as you say, I feel the reader is sufficiently warned of this in the title....other mathematical diversions...in the bedroom....anyways for non-mathematicians with a numbery-bent of mind, it is quite a nice read.


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