language and words in the news

Tales of the unexpected

© FancyThe winner of the 2009 Bookseller / Diagram prize for the Oddest Title of the Year was announced at the end of last month, going to Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes by Dr Daina Taimina. You may remember I mentioned this competition a few weeks ago, though this wasn’t one of the titles that originally caught my eye (mostly because I had no idea what it meant!).

Like me, you’d probably be forgiven for thinking that the book is actually all about the gentle world of yarn, needles and baby’s booties, (though where the ‘adventures’ would come into it, I’m not quite sure – perhaps the panicked cry of ‘Help, stitch on the run!’, or taking part in a new sport of ‘extreme crocheting’, where your task, should you choose to accept it, is to crochet a blanket whilst hang-gliding and evading capture by marauding munchkins) but you’d be wrong. Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes is, in fact, a serious work by a mathematician at Cornell University in the US.

It turns out (and I confess, I’ve yet to read the book myself, so I’m basing this on sales blurb) that crocheting is used to illustrate geometric concepts that are difficult to visualize – bet you never saw that coming! Try reading Wikipedia’s entry for hyperbolic geometry, though, and you start to see why something – anything! – might be useful to explain what it’s all about.

The idea of using everyday techniques to demystify complex mathematical ideas is a great one, and probably the only way a lot of us (definitely me!) would ever have a hope of getting our heads round it. I’m actually tempted to take a proper look at the book, and anyone who knows me and my antipathy towards maths will tell you what a big deal that is. I’m also tempted to go back and look more closely at previous winners of the Oddest Title prize, to see what they’re really about – there could be some real gems in there!

So, not only has the Diagram prize made me consider picking up a book I would normally run away from, it’s also proved that not only can you not judge a book by its cover, it’s a bit risky to judge one by its title. I imagine the Amazon customers who bought this book at the same time as 100 Flowers to Knit and Crochet (which actually is about knitting and crochet) probably learnt that to their cost.

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Sharon Creese

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