Summary: An intelligent stocking filler; a trivia book for somebody with a scientific mind and a predilection for logical puzzles. Amusing, informative and idiosyncratically whimsical; but a bit slight overall and repeats points from Barrow’s other books. 4/5.

*

I love those collections that appear at Christmas: ’77 places to visit before you die’, ’39 facts you would never suspect about a Reliant Robin’, ‘101 tips for making your wife a bedroom goddess…’ Some of these collections have not much utility beyond stocking-filling and providing a mild diversion from the Boxing Day boredom, the best are genuinely educational as well as fascinating.

John Barrow’s 100 Essential Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know is somewhere in between. Unashamedly idiosyncratic, it’s a motley collection of short articles of all things mathematical (and that includes algebra, topology, logic, as well as quite a bit of physics, a sprinkling of statistics, probability theory, number theory and more), its driving power is, I suspect, to show how mathematics and, more generally, mathematical thinking, can be used to explore and even answer questions from all areas of life.

It’s not a book of number puzzles for hopeless maths geeks (in fact, hopeless maths geeks will be probably familiar with quite a few of phenomena described in 100 Things), but a light hearted, entertaining but never dumbed down survey of mathematics as applied to, well, just about anything.

From how humans tally to how to rig elections, from how to recognise fake random distribution to UK postcodes, from packing boxes with things of different sizes to guarding art galleries, from the best ways to board the plane to showing that the other queue does move faster, 100 Things is informative, educational, entertaining and sometimes laugh out loud funny.

My favourite touch is the quote that precedes each chapter. Those quotes themselves deserve their own half star: they are not only amusing in themselves, but the choice and juxtaposition with both the chapter titles and the main text is an excellent example of the sparkle, wit and the sheer delight Barrow takes in the wonders of the mathematical tools he has at his disposal and the sheer strangeness of the world out there. This delight, occasionally bordering on whimsy, is infectious and 100 Things comes recommended as an intelligent stocking filler for all that are not completely number-phobic.

This review was originally written for www.thebookbag.co.uk.

256 pages

The Bodley Head Ltd October 2008