Cakes, Custard and Category Theory: Easy Recipes for Understanding Complex Maths, by Eugenia Cheng

Noel-Ann Bradshaw is inspired by a book with all the right ingredients for explaining a tricky subject.

Apart from alliteration, what on earth do cakes, custard and category theory have in common? As a recent winner of the Best Mathematical Cake prize at MathsJam, the recreational mathematics conference, I feel I am fairly qualified to understand the connections that mathematician Eugenia Cheng illustrates here.

Cheng – the only female category theorist in South Yorkshire, she quips – has written this deliciously lively text with the aim of showing that “mathematics is there to make difficult things easy”. It is a book of two halves: the first explains the mathematical concepts needed to understand category theory, and the second describes the rudiments of category theory itself, a branch of abstract mathematics often described as the “mathematics of mathematics”. She combines these definitions to deduce that “category theory is there to make difficult mathematics easy” – in a neat contrast to the warning in the title of Carl E. Linderholm’s memorably mischievous look at the subject, Mathematics Made Difficult (1972).

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