Book Review: The Raven’s Hat by Jonas Peters, Nicolai Meinshausen, Malte Meinshausen (Illustrations)

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Genre: Non-fiction
Publisher: MIT Press
Publication Date: February 2nd, 2021
Pages: 192, paperback
Source: NetGalley

Games that show how mathematics can solve the apparently unsolvable.

This book presents a series of engaging games that seem unsolvable–but can be solved when they are translated into mathematical terms. How can players find their ID cards when the cards are distributed randomly among twenty boxes? By applying the theory of permutations. How can a player guess the color of her own hat when she can only see other players’ hats? Hamming codes, which are used in communication technologies. Like magic, mathematics solves the apparently unsolvable. The games allow readers, including university students or anyone with high school-level math, to experience the joy of mathematical discovery.

Don’t be fooled by the beguiling, opera-singing, card-playing, hat-wearing ravens in The Raven’s Hat. Authors Jonas Peters and Nicolai Meinshausen have crafted a serious mathematical puzzle book.

The book posits different game scenarios where the ravens have to figure out something based on incomplete information gleaned by observing their fellow ravens. For example, the ravens have to figure out what color hat each raven is wearing, but they can only see the hats which are in front of them. None of the ravens can see the last raven’s hat. The authors do guide the reader through the process of figuring the various puzzles, but this is not a book for someone casually interested in math or mathematical games. If it’s been a while since you’ve had a higher math class, or the phrase “binomial coefficient” causes you a vague sense of dread, this isn’t the book for you.

It is, however, thorough, and enjoyable in places. The raven illustrations by Malte Meinshausen are engaging, and kept me entertained through the detailed explanations and formulae, some of which I admit, frankly lost me, or maybe were just so detailed that I stopped caring what the solution was.

Recommended for math lovers, but not the layperson.

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