Alex's Adventures in Numberland: Dispatches from the Wonderful World of Mathematics Hardcover – 5 Apr 2010
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In a charming, conversational prose style, and with diagrams to ease brain stress, he draws us into a forbidding world, often going into the history of famous bits of maths, including the origins of Tetris and Rubik's Cube.
The most immediately fascinating chapter is on the application of probability theory to gambling, with insights into slot machines, insurance, lotteries and a neat explanation of Pascal's wager on the existence of God. --Metro
What Bellos calls "the wow factor" of mathematics leaps out at the reader from every page ... The stories prove so engaging, the personalities so colorful, that readers may forget
they are mastering some powerful mathematical concepts. --Booklist
`A mathematical wonder that will leave you hooked on numbers' --Daily Telegraph
`Spectacularly successful introduction to the excitement and wonder of mathematics.' --Sunday Times
`He renders the world of numbers accessible and captivating' --Daily Express
`A truly marvellous survey of modern mathematics' --Martin Gardner, for more than 25 years author of the 'Mathematical Games' column in Scientific American
`An unforgettable journey of intellectual discovery'
--Apostolos Doxiadis, author of Logicomix and Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture
Starting with chapter zero, all twelve chapters are a fascinating exploration of the wonders of maths.
--City A.M Newspaper
About the Author
Alex Bellos has a degree in Mathematics and Philosophy from Oxford University. He has worked for the Guardian in London and Rio de Janeiro, where he was the paper's unusually numerate foreign correspondent. In 2002 he wrote a critically acclaimed book about Brazilian football and in 2006 ghostwrote Pele's autobiography, which was a number one bestseller.
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However I think there was a lot of filler which proved very boring. For example he goes on for what seemed like a very long time about discovering digits of pi. Perhaps I just didn't find certain areas interesting which is totally subjective. For example I didn't find Vedic maths very interesting but I found hyperbolic planes fascinating. I'm still giving it 4 stars because as I said this is all subjective.
Absolutely loved it, it is a romp through the history of maths in bite sized chunks which investigate certain aspects, e.g. sequences etc.
That man Euler was a genius wasn't he?
Alex Bellos has a very good way of writing, easy to read and sprinkled, sparingly, with a bit of humour too - thoroughly enjoyable. I'll even forgive him for saying 'math' once (well twice if you include a quote but that was from an American and we all know they can't speak English) and a typo in the logarithms section (can you spot it?).
Well done on an excellent book.
There is much to admire about this book, but the two things that stand out are: (1) it appears to the maths laity (that's me) to be meticulously and comprehensively researched; and (2) the writer, Alex Bellos, is a journalist who graduated university with a double major of maths and philosophy and is therefore a keen amateur and not a professional mathematician. The latter is no doubt core to the book's strengths, because Bellos brings a hobbyists's enthusiasm along with a sympathy for the semi-literacy most of us bring to the maths. I also liked that Bellos does not revert to hyperbolic fan's zeal to inspire the same passion in the reader. Rather, he provides a series of interesting facts and folksy supporting anecdotes to show the development of: (1) different fields--geometry, probability, statistics; (2) concepts--pi, phi, infinity, zero; and (3) tools--logarithms, slide rules, the quincunx; in a way that is mostly understandable and usually entertaining. Along the way, he relates amusing stories involving eccentric people and their often mundane means--origami, sponges, crochet--of giving physical shape to the downright unfathomable.
The book is divided into 12 chapters, numbered 0 to 11. Chapters 0 tells how numbers emerged, evolving from a means of counting items necessary for survival to wholly counter-intuitive abstract concepts. Chapter 1 discusses the evolution of counting and is devoted to the limitations of the base 10 numeral system under which the West operates. Why base 10 when base 12 is measurably superior? Two reasons: (1) we have ten fingers, a pretty obvious observation after someone points it out to you; and (2) the French, who pretty much forced Europe to adopt decimalisation, probably in a fit of pique after losing out to English in the language stakes. Chapter 2 discusses the creation of zero, which contrary to what I thought, was developed in India, and not Arabia, prompting the following conversation with my colleague Peeyush (an Indian):
Me: Know what India invented?
Peeyush: Big hair? Finger cymbals? Corruption?
Me: Nothing. India invented nothing. And why are you so biased against India?
As the book progresses, so does the abstract nature of the subject matter, and the concept of pi provides the perfect bridge between numeracy and philosophy, which had already emerged with the chapter on zero. Chapter Five reinforces the connection, noting, "Algebra lets us see beyond the legerdemain providing a way to go from the concrete to the abstract--from tracking the behaviour of a specific number to tracking the behaviour of any number." But as illustrative of my point as this passage may be, I only included it because it contains the word "legerdemain." At this point, the book also irritated my psoriasis, as it reminded me of two of my education failures: (1) the slide rule; and (2) logarithms. The slide rule exposed my lack of dexterity, which I blame for a lifelong preference for the directionally correct over pinpoint accuracy. Logarithms exposed the limitations of a brain that can memorise useless facts but could not hope to make the abstract concrete in a month of infinite Sundays.
Which would provide a great segue to the book's discussion of infinity if it weren't for intervening chapters on: (1) mathematical puzzles/games-Sudoku, the Rubik's Cube; (2) number sequences--the most fascinating anecdote being the development and applications of The On-Line Encyclopaedia of Integer Sequences, a kind of numerical genome; and (3) the concepts of phi and "the golden ratio" and their relationship to Fibonacci sequences. Concerning "the golden ratio," Bellos notes, "It may sound Orwellian, but some irrational numbers are more irrational than others. And no number is more irrational than the golden ratio." Which means it should be the ultimate kindred spirit but in fact only recalls another bad high school memory and a conversation with my maths teacher:
Me: Look, It's irrational. It can't be a number. It can be a parental demand or a political promise, but numbers behave, darnit!
Mrs Kohl: Wells, stop making this as difficult as yourself. The test is only ten questions. So quit messing around and whip it out.
From here, the book backtracks into another chapter on games, or more accurately gaming, and the evolution of probability theory, which, as any derivatives trader with an ounce of conscience can attest, is the root of the current economic downturn if you don't count Obamacare and high tax rates on corporations and the rich (ok, that was sarcasm). The chapter uses maths to confirm that there are a few clever clogs who can improve gambling odds but the rest of us are easy prey to owners of casinos whose only redeeming quality is that they are as stupid as the rest of us in understanding how probability theory works and must therefore put their faith in the quants they employ, much like the purchasers of derivatives products.
Which flows nicely into another bit of mathematical fiction, statistics and the bell curve. This is yet another concept with which I struggled, this time as a university student in 1974, because the idea of anything normal in a world characterised by Vietnam, Watergate and the Bay City Rollers could only be, in the words of Spiro T. Agnew, "a damnable, palpable lie." It also reminded me of the debates I would have as a portfolio analyst with my quant boss about over-reliance on statistical models to predict the fortunes of industry segments. I was instead a believer in the theory that an industry segment collapses under the weight of too much money chasing it, and all you need for that analysis is a critical mass of Wall Street Journal headlines.
And that brings us to the final chapter, appropriately about infinity, a concept discussed throughout the book--especially in the bits on counting and number sequencing--but thoroughly analysed from a mathematical and philosophical standpoint here. And, face it, infinity is nothing if not a philosophical concept, especially when you consider that it can be mathematically proven that there are different values of infinity. Perhaps even an infinite amount of values of infinity. Yeah, think about it.
The chapter on numerology which I didn't like or rather, I didn't understand why it was there or what purpose is served. It was more quasi-mystical and borderline hippie rather than contributing any way to the overall theme of the book. But still, each chapter is sufficiently modular so that the adventures don't overlap with each other.