Math book: The Mystery of the Prime Numbers

By Murray Bourne, 05 Jul 2011

Matthew Watkins' The Mystery of the Prime Numbers is an interesting read. It's all you ever wanted to know about prime numbers - and then some.

Mystery of prime numbers
Cover of The Mystery of the Prime Numbers

Watkins tells us some history of the "unsplittable" numbers.

Consider a pile of objects that need to be shared evenly among members of your tribe. If you have 12 objects (say fish), you would be able to split them nicely if your tribe has 2 people, or 3, 4, 6 or 12 people. The number 12 is very "splittable". But if you only have 11 fish, you have a problem. You can only divide them evenly if there is one person in the tribe, or 11 people. It's not so "splittable".

The book combines this kind of explanation together with playful illustrations by Matt Tweed that trigger further thought and produce "a-ha" understandings.

During the discussions on number lines, counting numbers, division, Peano's Axioms and spirals, there are excursions along the way about religion, economics, philosophy and neuropsychology.

The strength of this volume is in the simplicity of the explanations. There are just a few formulas throughout the book (sadly, each equation in a book reduces its sales appeal) and most of the heavy lifting when it comes to explanation is in the illustrations.

For math teachers. the book could give you some ideas for activities for your students to better understand the nature of the number line, the distribution of primes or the nature of infinity.

The book is the first volume in a series on "Secrets of Creation". It sounds quite religious, but the present book is not overly so.

Another review

Here's Sol Lederman's enthusiastic review.


The Mystery of the Prime Numbers is available from Amazon.

Disclaimer: Watkins sent me a review copy of the book. I have no connection to the project.

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