I have previously read and reviewed Rob Eastaway's books Why Do Buses Come in Threes?
and How Long Is a Piece of String?
on The hidden mathematics of everyday life, but although I've been aware of Marcus Du Sautoy's books for some time, this is the first I've actually bought and read. While his approach is different from Rob's, Marcus also has a way of explaining mathematics such that it can appeal to the wider public. The book is divided into five chapters, the basic themes being prime numbers, geometric shapes, winning streaks, coded information and predicting the future.
Perhaps the most amusing subject in the first chapter is the life-cycle of cicadas, which are apparently 7, 13 or 17 years in duration, depending on the species. The author suggests this cycle using one of three prime numbers may be a way of discouraging predators, but as he`s a mathematician rather than a biologist, I won`t assume that although it sounds plausible.
Sometimes the author strays from the chapter heading but that's no problem. For example, the first chapter discusses Fibonacci numbers (and the inevitable example of breeding rabbits) as well as prime numbers. Another off-topic digression that I found interesting was the author's discussion of the early number systems developed by ancient civilizations.
The chapter on geometric shapes is another fascinating chapter, discussing the shapes of footballs, teabags, snowflakes, coastlines, viruses and abstract paintings among other things. Golf balls aren't featured here; they come later in the book. The chapter on winning streaks discusses a variety of games and puzzles including the 18th century Königsberg bridge puzzle. Rob Eastaway also covered this puzzle in one of his books; it seems to be regarded as a particularly significant example in the world of mathematics. Marcus tells us how Königsberg has changed including the bridges.
The chapter on coded information explains that some codes appear to be uncrackable because they use very large prime numbers as multipliers, but also discusses other codes. The designers of the German Enigma code thought it was uncrackable, but British mathematicians eventually proved them wrong. There are other codes that were never meant to be secret, including the Morse code invented in the nineteenth century. The author also discusses check digits, using the ISBN book cataloguing system as an example. The last chapter on predicting the future discusses pendulums, boomerangs and weather among other things.
This is a very entertaining book although it does get a little technical here and there. As such, anybody who is in the least bit intimidated by mathematics might be better to begin with one of Rob Eastaway's books. However, I like both authors in different ways and I may end up buying more books by both authors.