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on 13 March 2013
This is about how the four colour problem was solved. I have heard Dr Wilson give a lecture on this topic and he has been on the radio talking about it too. A really good read with plenty of humour. This book is very accessible to non-mathematicians.
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on 26 May 2004
Robin Wilson had a hard job. The story of how the Four Colour Theorum was solved is painstakingly intricate to explain to other mathmaticians. To try and explain it to "ordinary" laymen is a phenominal task, almost as tricky as the theory itself!
Unsurprisingly and understandably, Wilson slips up occasionally. Sometimes he doesn't give enough detail and explains obvious terms; often he presumes we understand more calculus than we do. For this reason, people with a very mathmatical brain and further education in mathmatics would find this book easier to cope with than other people just looking for a good read.
Wilson is every bit a mathmatician, which is noticeable in every aspect of the book. He writes in rather a scattered order: nearly every page talks about something "we will see later in Chapter X" or something "as we have already seen in Chapter X" and so the flow of the book is constantly disrupted. Because of the mathmatical aspect, the vocabulary used isn't exactly mind-blowing or particularly emotive. But then, if you want wonderful writing, you buy a novel.
That said, it is easy to see why this subject has excited mathmaticians past and present. One train of thought he didn't pursue (confusingly, to my mind) was that the pinicle of the book - the "solution" to the problem - may not be a solution at all. He talks of how other mathmaticians "solved" the problem in the past, and of how these solutions were disproved years later. In the case of Kempe, his solution was disproved a full eleven years after it was published. Given this information, and after learning of other mathmaticians rejection of the most recent "proof", I was surprised to read of Wilson's refusal to admit that this new solution may well be disproved in the future.
This is the kind of book, which urges you to grab a pen, paper and four coloured pencils, just to see if you can out-smart the world's best mathmaticians of the previous 150 years...
... and I'm still colouring...
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on 12 February 2005
...if not the best book I've ever read!
Robin Wilson does an amazing job at describing the history of the four-colour theorem, from conception, through various attempts at proving it, past a few failed proofs (including Kempe's proof - which was only shown as defective over ten years after he published it), and onto Appel and Haken's proof. The thing that makes this book stand out from so many other 'light reading' mathematics books is the balance between biographical information and mathematics (the interesting stuff!). I would say that the majority of the book is maths-based, and the biographical content tends to be kept relevant to the 'storyline'.
You'll definitely want to be at least a little mathematically minded if you're going to enjoy this book - but, before long, you'll find it very easy to at least prove that five colours suffice... :)
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on 14 January 2008
Robin Wilson is the son of Harold, prime minister at intervals in the 60s and 70s. (And coiner of the 'white-heat of the technological revolution' and godfather of the open university). He was always interested in the four colour problem and was famous for wearing a patchwork knitted jumper that illustrated it.
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