A new review of The Universe in Zero Words has been posted on The Math Less Traveled, a blog by Brent Yorgey. I love it when I see a review that is completely, 100 percent positive, because then I don’t have to reply to anything, I can just tell you to go read it!

Also, a review of The Universe (as well as its competitor, Ian Stewart’s In Pursuit of the Unknown) has just come out in Notices of the American Mathematical Society. Gerald Folland discusses the books with acuity and humor. Here are a couple of my favorite passages:

In all these cases as well as others it quickly becomes clear that the equation that heads a chapter is merely what Alfred Hitchcock called “the McGuffin”: the device that sets the plot in motion.

(This should allay the concerns of any people who might fear that the entire chapter is going to be a symbol-by-symbol dissection of the equation the chapter is about.)

Mackenzie’s ideal readers have a little more mathematical background than Stewart’s; I envision them as bright undergraduates or high school seniors who are oriented toward mathematics and science or people to whom this description would have applied in the not-too-distant past. They should probably know some calculus, and they should be comfortable enough with symbolic expressions to be able to look at an unfamiliar one with more curiosity than distaste. Mackenzie’s chapters are pithier and generally more mathematically adventurous than Stewart’s (and therefore, for my taste, more fun to read).

This is dangerous praise, but probably correct. I did keep the proverbial bright high-school student constantly in mind while I was writing. And some other reviewers have felt that the last few chapters in my book assumed a bit too much for the common reader. To answer that, I could quote Robert Browning, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp…” Or what’s a math book for?

Finally, Folland writes:

In summary, the books of Mackenzie and Stewart, as well as Farmelo, are all worthy additions to the popular scientific literature, and they are of sufficiently diverse character that their considerable overlap is not mere duplication. However, individually and collectively, they do demonstrate that the “great equations” conceit is not particularly natural or productive and that the attempt to shoehorn a wide range of mathematics into this format is a procrustean one. I don’t think we now have a surfeit of “great equations” books, but we do have a sufficiency.

There’s nothing I can add to this. How can you argue with a book review that uses the word “procrustean”?

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