Secrets of Creation Volume One: The Mystery of the Prime Numbers. Matt Watkins with illustrations by Matt Tweed. The Inamorata Press. ISBN: 978-0-9564879-0-2
I must admit that I rather enjoyed maths at school but I clearly remember the horror of learning Calculus. Our teacher began the lesson with a stern warning: what was to follow would form the foundation of the entire year so we’d better all concentrate and pay careful attention. Ah, I tried, but my daydreaming kite of a mind spiralled out into the sky, and when eventually I reeled it back the board was covered in arcane symbols and we were being given impossible exercises to do. Nightmare! If only I’d had Matthew Watkins to guide me.
Matt is a mathematician and an old friend with whom I’ve shared many illuminating nights, playing improvised space folk and discussing all manner of ‘out there’ ideas. His passion is numbers and the extraordinary patterns that fall out of them, most notably the distribution of the primes. Now, together with another old friend, illustrator Matt Tweed, he has produced a gem of a book – part textbook, part graphic novel, part philosophical tract, part detective story – that explains some pretty high level maths in terms that anyone (and I mean anyone) can understand.
Eschewing all but the most necessary equations (purists will find more conventional mathematical proofs in the appendices), Matt employs ladybirds, elastic ropes, rope bridges, beans and building blocks to lead the reader ever deeper into the mathematical mysteries. He explains logarithms ingeniously using spirals and, unafraid to inject a little poetry in what is usually a fairly dry subject, coins the name ‘spiral waves’ for the elusive structures that lie beneath the woodwork of prime number distribution. The illustrations are a delight and, I’m told, full of mathematical in-jokes, but on a purely visual level the golfing sprite had me laughing out loud.
Along the way, and most unusually for a mathematician, Matt challenges us to question our cultural assumptions about maths, numbers and pattern. Why do we expect prime numbers to conform to a pattern anyway? What are the implications of our ever-greater reliance on quantity (targets, quotas, aptitude tests, digital technology etc) at the expense of quality? Why don’t we pay any attention to the qualitative, cultural side of numbers? All provocative stuff.
By the end of the book I was impatient for more and happily there are a further two volumes to come. The Mystery of the Prime Numbers is destined to become a cult-classic but it deserves a much broader readership than that. If someone had shown me that the mathematical universe is as profoundly odd as it is strangely beautiful, or even that excursions into its nether regions can be thrilling, then Calculus would have been a doddle and my imagination would never have had cause to flee the confines of the classroom.