Book Review: The Mystery of the Prime Numbers

Several months ago, Matthew Watkins sent me a review copy of his new book, Secrets of Creation Volume One: The Mystery of the Prime Numbers. It’s taken me a while to get around to reviewing it, but not for lack of enthusiasm. Let me cut right to the chase:

This is a fantastic book. A fabulous book. A splendiferous book!

It’s easy enough to say what the book is about: it explains some extremely fascinating properties of the distribution of prime numbers. But that doesn’t tell you why it’s so great; books about prime numbers are a dime a dozen.

First of all, Watkins (with the help of the illustrations, which I’ll get to shortly) manages to explain everything extremely clearly, beginning from first principles—and I really mean first principles; he begins with the definition of the natural numbers and goes from there. The only thing that could possibly stand between elementary school students and an appreciation of this book is their reading ability and attention span, NOT their mathematical abilities. But—and here is the truly astounding thing—I, a PhD student who has studied math my whole life, could not put this book down. Not only was I not bored, I learned new things! How is this possible? Partly, it was due to the fresh, creative, insightful way everything is explained, coupled with excellent writing; partly, it was due to the subject, which starts conventionally enough but soon wanders into fascinating territory unfamiliar to many mathematicians (including this one). A book like this, accessible to young children and engaging to adults, is a rare and wonderful accomplishment indeed!

Oh yes, and the illustrations. The illustrations! The illustrations by Matt Tweed make me so happy. There is this cute little wizard (you can see him on the cover of the book above) and these two cute little children and they are constantly engaged in various silly hijinks that both admirably illustrate the content of the text and simply bring a smile to your face. And there are robots and piles of beans and aliens and ladybugs and molecules and…

My only criticism lies with the first chapter, which Watkins spends on a sort of introductory rant about the unhealthy obsession of our culture with all things quantitative. While I tend to agree with him about much of it, it comes off as heavy-handed and much too long. But don’t let it stop you: as Watkins himself suggests, you are free to skip the first chapter.

I eagerly await Volume II (to be published next year)!

About Brent

Associate Professor of Computer Science at Hendrix College. Functional programmer, mathematician, teacher, pianist, follower of Jesus.
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3 Responses to Book Review: The Mystery of the Prime Numbers

  1. Jonathan says:

    Hm, I haven’t read a math book since elementary school, but this review made me stand up and notice this one! Onto the Amazon wish list.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Whoops should have noticed Amazon doesn’t carry it . . . but they are in need of a first review . . .

  3. Thanks for all the enthusiasm!

    And, Jonathan (and anyone else interested): if you’re going to buy the book, please buy it directly from my site. Amazon will take orders and redirect them to me, but they take a significant cut in the process. But Amazon reviews are always welcome, of course.

    Matthew Watkins

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