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Is That a Big Number? Hardcover – 12 Jul 2018
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This book is crammed with engaging facts and figures ... The 'number' geek will gobble this book up, and many teachers will find it helpful to have a couple of copies casually to hand for students who need something extra to get their teeth into ... this is not only an informative and engaging book, it is a campaigning one as well. (Colin Johnson, School Science Review)
The writing is accessible, thoughtful and, on an interesting note, very, very positive about the role of numbers to help make informed decisions in all areas of daily life. (Alan Edmiston, Equals)
Is That a Big Number is an easy but excellent read for the person who wants to understand large numbers in context of everyday life ... A key tenet of this book is the idea of comparison: every example is stacked against a well-known fact. Every chapter ends with a list of (approximate) relations to help the reader grasp magnitudes of heights, distances, weights, and riches. (Megan Sawyer, Mathematical Association of America)
The book illustrates well that knowledge (being numerate) is power. (Adhemar Bultheel, European Mathematical Society)
Wide-ranging and highly accessible, this book is chock-full of fascinating nuggets, providing a rich source of colourful examples of numbers and how they are used. It shows how numeracy and literacy are two sides of the same coin. (David J. Hand, Senior Research Investigator and Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at Imperial College, London)
About the Author
Andrew Elliott grew up in the Eastern Cape region of South Africa, and studied statistics and actuarial science at the University of Cape Town. He emigrated to the United Kingdom in the late 1980s to use his actuarial skills in the world of financial systems. After a spell as a management consultant, Andrew launched a series of start-up companies in financial technology, and he continues to work in this field. Frustrated by how quantitative information is presented in the media and public discussion, in 2016 Andrew started "Is That A Big Number?, a project to promote numeracy and the development of intuitive number sense.
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- My favourites: Numbers in Geological time - and Velocity, also the Universe! or Energy (Science) and Population numbers. It's all covered in short chapters and is the best book I've found in years. With some cool illustrations and graphs I'm becoming a right boffin.
- I mean, we subconsciously see BIG numbers daily but this book shows us it's importance. Everywhere, like Maths, including in Music. Do you know when the first 'human' came about? Or how many Earth's can fit in the sun?!
Broadly, Elliott divides our mechanisms for assessing numbers into five. The first is landmark numbers, which act as a known milestick - classic examples would be the approach often adopted by newspapers of measuring things in blue whales, football pitches or Eiffel Towers, though it's about far more than measuring height or volume. The second technique is visualisation - picturing the numbers in some sort of visual context. Thirdly he suggests dividing the number up into smaller parts, and fourthly bringing them down to size by using the as proportions or ratios. Finally he points out the value of logarithmic scales, even though these can result in misunderstanding some of the other measures.
What we get here is a real mix - some parts of the book are genuinely fun, others are, frankly, only of interest to a number fanatic. The biggest problem here is that, while there are genuinely interesting attempts to give experience of comparing or visualising numbers, the way the book meanders with little narrative structure makes it difficult to keep on top of what's happening. It's very scattergun, with a fair amount of the material that was hard to find interesting - such as lots of lists of comparisons of things where the numbers are vaguely similar. (For example, the time since the earliest known writing is about 25 x the time since the birth of Darwin. And we care why?)
There are little quizzes at the start of each section which ask, for example, which is the most numerous of Boeing 747s built up to 2016, the population of Falkland Islands, grains of sugar in a teaspoon and satellites in orbit in 2015. These are quite fun, though it's a pain looking up the answer in the back of the book. And that specific example (the first) also irritates as it involves comparing something with an exact value (number of satellites, say) with a wild approximation - we're told there are more satellites as there are 4080 satellites versus 4000 grains of sugar in a teaspoon - but I'm sure a 'teaspoon of sugar' is not accurate to the nearest 80 grains.
Perhaps less of an issue, but still slight odd, is that a few of the facts are impressively out of date. Elliott uses a definition of the metre that has been obsolete since 1983 and there's a section on the Richter scale that fails to mention that it has been little used since the 1970s (although they sometimes mislabel it, the earthquake scale used on the news is not the Richter scale).
Those, though, are minor issues. While there is a much better book to help the reader get a real feel for how numbers are misused and how to understand big numbers better in Blastland and Dilnot's The Tiger That Isn't, I still found Is That a Big Number? interesting and I'm glad I read it.
Are these really BIG numbers - well it depends!
A great book on better ways of comparing all the statistics we hear every day as sound-bites on the news, or spattered across the headlines.
Fascinating - loads of pictures and diagrams to make sense of these tricky numbers...and what the author calls "Landmark Numbers" - a range of standard numbers we can use to make sense of the scale of things.
Read it and smile and learn at the same time
The book describes 5 strategies to cope with big numbers the ones that are stressed most are anchoring to landmark numbers and ratios (which then naturally brings you to geometric progression and logarithms - the last of the 5) These are useful tools and all of the fact numbers spread through the book are there to give you landmarks. I just feel that it is a bit of a missed opportunity as it has too many of the facts and not enough of the relevance of why we care if that is a big number or not. for example is a 5% increase in the risk of cancer a big increase? Will a lot of people die or does that mean only 2 more deaths. I think Michael Blastland's books cover the same sort of material more thoroughly and for me I was a bit disappointed.
Andrew Elliot must have spent ages putting this book together. Lots of little quizzes and tables of facts are scattered generously throughout the pages. However, I do feel that even though Andrew Elliot has attempted to put the facts in some sort of structured order, it does feel as if he has taken a bit of a scatter gun approach: if you prefer to read a book from front to back, this is definitely not your sort of book.