Review: Snowflake Seashell Star, by Alex Bellos & Edmund Harriss

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.

In fact, everything in it is gorgeous and pretty and, along with some of the regulars at Manchester MathsJam, we looked through it and recognised almost every page as either an existing beautiful mathematical image, or some visual representation of a mathematical idea. We got stuck on identifying images for a minute, but luckily the book also includes a section at the back which explains what each page shows, and why it’s cool. This is also the location of my top favourite pun of the book, “Petit Fouriers” which is the name of the page featuring some gorgeous patterns made by applying Fourier transforms to simple shapes.

The range of types of maths on display is super, from a 7-way Venn diagram to hyperbolic projections, fractals, aperiodic tilings and prime numbers. Without spoiling too much of what’s in there, the book is split into two sections – the first is things you can colour in, and the second half includes some partly-finished things which you finish off using mathematical principles and occasionally a little colour-by-numbers.

Aside from being a beautiful object, the maths is all solid, and it was pointed out to me that this would be the ideal book to bridge the gap between someone who considers themselves a maths person and an arty person (let’s not start an argument about whether these two are distinct things, but some people like to think of themselves as one or the other) – with a good opportunity to explain some nice interesting maths concepts, expressed in a visual way, and also a good chance to develop aesthetic sensibility and colour a thing in pretty.

This is before you even get to the thing where colouring in is now being used as stress relief and for relaxation by a lot of people (something something mindfulness), which I imagine this book with its beautiful images would be great for. Whether you’re methodical or artistic, you can make use of it as a starting point.

The book is out today, and available from all good bookshops. You’ll have to get your own colouring pencils though. Mine are busy.