Occasionally someone from Princeton University Press sends me a list of upcoming titles and asks if there are any I’d like to review. I jumped when I saw this one: a book about magic tricks and math! By Persi Diaconis and Ron Graham! Ron Graham in particular is one of the coolest mathematicians I know of.
So I said I was interested and then promptly forgot about it—that was several months ago. Imagine my delight when the book showed up in the mail! As soon as I opened it I knew I was in for a treat: it is simply a beautiful book. The design, layout, typography, even the paper is beautiful.
So I settled in to read it over the past few days and was not disappointed: this is one of the most fun, engaging new popular mathematics books I’ve seen in a long time. I love how it reads more like a conversation than a traditional book: the authors wend their way from explaining magic tricks, to explaining the math behind them, to speculating on open mathematical questions (and whether their answers can be turned into good magic tricks), to personal reminiscences and stories about great mathematical magicians. There’s a chapter on juggling (complete with instructions—with pictures!), a chapter on the I Ching, a chapter on shuffling cards. There are lots of great magic tricks, many explained so that you can perform them yourself (and a few that aren’t!). In short, what it boils down to is a couple of brilliant and fascinating people having a heck of a lot of fun and letting you in on some of it.
The math is at a level that should be accessible to most high school or particularly motivated middle school students. Indeed, giving this book to a high school student is probably dangerous if you want them to pay attention to anything else for the next few weeks; they are likely to be hooked!