Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension: A Mathematician's Journey Through Narcissistic Numbers, Optimal Dating Algorithms, at Least Two Kinds of Infinity, and More
Matt Parker is a comedian and a mathematician, a nerd who revels in the challenge of numbers and believes math can be recreational, and he is the best person possible to write a book about math to engage those who feel lukewarm about numbers to those who wholeheartedly embrace math.
The contents of this book are nothing like a textbook from high school or college. The pages are filled with historical detail and anecdotes, the who, why, and when behind theories, equations, and more, and a tongue-in-cheek chapter titled “The Answers at the Back of the Book.”
Each chapter builds upon the previous as the reader is guided through algorithms, prime numbers, knots, shapes, and multiple dimensions. There is excitement on the page as Parker illuminates shadow numbers and talks about ridiculous shapes, making puns and encouraging bar bets the reader can win, as well as showing a magic trick or two with card decks.
Each chapter contains projects and problems the reader can tackle with Parker’s on-page guidance (and “The Answers at the Back of the Book”), but those who have a math-phobia can skim over these and enjoy the rest of the content at hand.
Unfortunately, once readers reach Chapter 14 the problem solving takes over the entire chapter: Parker has the reader by the hand and is determined to walk her step by step through multiple problems or puzzles to the conclusion of the chapter, with only minimum information on the who, why, and when that made up the fascinating history that filled the earlier chapters. Parker is absolutely convinced that he will get you to do math by the end of the book, but in reality, he will lose readers by Chapter 14 who were more interested in the ideas of math rather than the practice of it.
Readers who were bad at math or hated it probably won’t be any better at problem solving for having read the book, but there will be a better understanding of why and how it can be fun. Math has been sucked dry thanks to the requirements of standardized testing, much like poetry has lost its beauty and meaning for most high school students, but in reading Things to Make and Do, a reader will see that there was potential for math to be interesting, beyond its usefulness to calculate a clearance sale price or balance a checkbook. In fact, readers may feel a bit saddened they didn’t have Parker for a math teacher during their formative math skill-building years.
Those who already enjoy math will read a skillful mathematician’s ode to numbers and ideas, and perhaps learn how to talk about or explain it to their confused or bored families and students. Things to Make and Do is a fantastic reader for college math students who need more than a textbook to help deepen their understanding and connection to numbers and ideas: this book can work in a classroom with a professor interested in teaching creative problem solving. High school students who enjoy math will find this book easy to read even if some of the math skills required may be beyond their ken.