Poulet’s Propeller

The Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers (1986) is one of my favourite books. It’s a fascinating mixture of math, mathecdote and math-joke:

2·618 0333…

The square of φ, the golden ratio, and the only positive number such that √n = n-1. (pg. 45)


Kepler discussed the 6-fold symmetry of snowflakes, and attempted to explain it by considering the close packing of spheres in a hexagonal array. (pg. 69)


This appears to be the first uninteresting number, which of course makes it an especially interesting number, because it is the smallest number to have the property of being uninteresting.

It is therefore also the first number to be simultaneously interesting and uninteresting. (pg. 120)

David Wells, who wrote the Dictionary, “had the rare distinction of being a Cambridge scholar in mathematics and failing his degree”. He must be the mathematical equivalent of the astronomer Patrick Moore: a popularizer responsible for opening many minds and inspiring many careers. He’s also written books on geometry and mathematical puzzles. But not everyone appreciates his efforts. This is a sideswipe in a review of William Hartston’s The Book of Numbers:

Thankfully, this book is more concerned with facts than mathematics. Anyone wanting to learn more about [π] or the Fibonacci sequence should turn to the Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers, a volume which none but propeller-heads will find either curious or interesting. (Review in The Independent, 18th December 1997)

Continue reading: Poulet’s Propeller


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