Any book on cryptography written for a more-or-less lay audience must inevitably face comparisons to The Code Book, written in 1999 by Simon Singh, the king of distilling complex subjects to a few hundred pages of understandable writing. While Singh’s book is a pretty thorough history of codes and codebreaking through the centuries with plenty of the maths thrown in, The Mathematics of Secrets is tilted (and indeed titled) more towards a fuller explanation of the mathematical techniques underlying the various ciphers. Although Holden’s book follows a basically chronological path, you won’t find too much interest in pre-computer ciphers here: Enigma is cracked on page seventy, and the name Alan Turing does not appear in the book.
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Snowflake Seashell Star is a new mathematical colouring book, by Alex Bellos and Edmund Harriss, aimed at the lucrative ‘grown-up colouring books’ market that’s sprung up recently, heavily intersected with people who are interested in maths – the book can be used as a regular colouring book, but contains lots of interesting mathematical things, and mathematicians will love it. I wouldn’t have expected anything less from maths adventurer Bellos and mathematical artist and tiling fan Harriss, whose personalities both come through in the book – from the beautiful illustration to the playful style (and there’s a sneaky Harriss Spiral in there too).
The first thing I did in order to properly review the book was check an important mathematical fact, in case anyone was worried. And yes, everything in it is colourable using four colours or fewer. Phew.