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Magical Mathematics

December 11, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

One of these days, the Wall Street Journal will stop delivering the paper, which I stopped paying for back in October. But it keeps coming, and as long as it does, I’ll keep reading its book reviews. Like the lead review in yesterday’s book section of Magical Mathematics: The Mathematical Ideas that Animate Great Magic Tricks, by famed mathematicians Persi Diaconis and Ron Graham. And as always, when a book on mathematics receives a review from a major mainstream media outlet, I’ll be there to cover it.

From Princeton University Press’s description of the book:

Magical Mathematics reveals the secrets of amazing, fun-to-perform card tricks–and the profound mathematical ideas behind them–that will astound even the most accomplished magician. Persi Diaconis and Ron Graham provide easy, step-by-step instructions for each trick, explaining how to set up the effect and offering tips on what to say and do while performing it. Each card trick introduces a new mathematical idea, and varying the tricks in turn takes readers to the very threshold of today’s mathematical knowledge. For example, the Gilbreath Principle–a fantastic effect where the cards remain in control despite being shuffled–is found to share an intimate connection with the Mandelbrot set. Other card tricks link to the mathematical secrets of combinatorics, graph theory, number theory, topology, the Riemann hypothesis, and even Fermat’s last theorem.

Diaconis and Graham are mathematicians as well as skilled performers with decades of professional experience between them. In this book they share a wealth of conjuring lore, including some closely guarded secrets of legendary magicians. Magical Mathematics covers the mathematics of juggling and shows how the I Ching connects to the history of probability and magic tricks both old and new. It tells the stories–and reveals the best tricks–of the eccentric and brilliant inventors of mathematical magic. Magical Mathematics exposes old gambling secrets through the mathematics of shuffling cards, explains the classic street-gambling scam of three-card monte, traces the history of mathematical magic back to the thirteenth century and the oldest mathematical trick–and much more.

Diaconis is the rare mathematician who has received extensive coverage in the popular press, thanks to his unusual background. As Alex Stone explains in yesterday’s WSJ review, “Mr. Diaconis has an especially unusual résumé for a mathematician. In 1959, at age 14, he ran away from home to study with the great 20th-century sleight-of-hand master Dai Vernon—a man who once fooled Harry Houdini with a card trick. After spending 10 years under Vernon’s tutelage, Mr. Diaconis returned home to New York and enrolled in night school, eventually earning a full ride to a Ph.D. program in mathematics at Harvard.” He visited Seattle just two months ago to give a major public lecture at the university, and has visited frequently before from his home base at Stanford.

Stone adds that

throughout the book, Messrs. Diaconis and Graham shuttle back and forth between magic and math, probing each trick for hidden mathematical insights and developing new magic based on what they find. In the process, they encounter a number of unsolved problems, some of which have prize money attached to them. It’s a fun ride, even if you don’t follow the nuances of every theorem and proof, and a refreshing change from the bombastic sort of magic one typically encounters on television.

I am intrigued by the notion that the Riemann Hypothesis and card tricks are related. I’ll have to get a copy of the book to learn more.

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