Book Review: Professor Stewart’s Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities by Ian Stewart

Review by Elizabeth Quill

What positive integer is equal to its own Scrabble score when spelled out in full?
Stewart, a mathematician at the University of Warwick in England, offers this and a hodgepodge of other puzzles, paradoxes, brainteasers, tricks, facts and jokes, which he accurately calls “curiosities.”

“I incline to the view that a miscellany should be miscellaneous, and this one is,” Stewart notes in his introduction.

He’s not lying. There is no real organization to his assortment, making it ideal for dabbling. Some entries will be skippable; others will inspire you to pull out a pencil and scratch paper.

Stewart revisits the classics: the seven bridges of Königsberg (can you find a path through the city that includes each bridge only once?) and the sausage conjecture (how efficiently can circles or spheres be wrapped?). He also offers originals, describing steps for creating a pop-up dodecahedron, and illuminating the easiest way for Archimedes to have moved the Earth. Some stories are based on geometry, others on logic, probability or plain Jane arithmetic.

For readers who want more information, the book offers additional resources — including, unfortunately, several Wikipedia entries. Unless Stewart plans to check the sites for accuracy regularly, a Google search would likely be just as reliable.

Oh, and the answer to the integer riddle is 12: T, E and L get one point. W and V get four.

Basic Books, 2009, 310 p., $16.95

Professor Stewart’s Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities by Ian Stewart