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on 12 October 2017
If you like numbers and are a number anorak you will like this book, but probably already know a lot of it. For me, a mere interested mortal, there was more about numbers than I really wanted to know. I know, it's a book about numbers, but oh boy, its a book about numbers. It is densely packed with, you guessed it, numbers. On a serious note, there are some really interest facts, for me at least, like why the 50p coin is shaped the way it is, there is a lot of information about the way numbers influence leaf and shell growth. But, it went on and on and on about numbers to the point when I reached the end I was glad I know nothing about numbers. It is interesting and informative but it does get awful dry at times. It's like eating pudding again and again and again. Good but too good.
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on 16 August 2010
I found Simon Singh's 'Fermat's Last Theorem' a bit of a page turner which either makes me a right saddo or an intellectual genius. When I saw this book on one of my frequent browses I thought that sounds right up my street so bought it (it had good reviews).

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.
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on 30 November 2010
This book isn't about maths or numbers, it's more about the history of maths and numbers, which is different. Alex goes into the reasons why certain things are the way they are - why are there 60 minutes in an hour, 12 hours in a day - and of course into lots of great trivia - did you know that the Chinese have a system of counting up to a billion on your fingers? The first few chapters are particularly insightful as he talks about the human perception of logarithmic scale and how it factors into the way we refer to large quantities.

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.
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on 14 August 2012
I'm not a reader of non-fiction for two reasons: (1) it usually purports to tell the truth when it is merely reporting a version of the truth like, well, fiction; and (2) it is usually less well written than fiction, where style tends to count more. But I'm happy to say that this rare foray into the realm of written reality scored on both fronts: (1) it reported pretty much indisputably factual information with only the odd conjecturable opinion; and (2) it was very well written.

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.

Me: Huh?

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.
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on 3 August 2011
I am not comfortable with maths beyond the basics (O'level 25 years ago) but I bought this book for my husband who loves maths and he loved this book. He said I should try it and I am really glad I did. I did struggle with some of the ideas but very often when I asked my husband to explain I found that the author explained the whole thing in the following paragraph. This is maths with a human face. I loved the Japanese soroban kids and now I want to learn how to use an abacus! The discussion of the Hilbert Hotel, Cantor and infinity was very difficult to grasp but I imagine I am not the only one. It is amusing and well worth the effort. When is the next book coming out Alex?
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on 1 July 2014
This is a good book with many interesting ideas, many have however been written about many times before and are getting a bit over played. There are a few mathematical errors and at times it waffles a bit (I can't help thinking the publisher pushed for more pages than was necessary). The chapters on probability and randomness were the highlights for me, possibly because many other pop writers avoid them. For a brief book with more pace '1089 and All That' is much more riveting and is mathematically sound . For more a more detailed and better account of the history of mathematics Simon Singh's 'Fermat Last Thereom' has yet to be surpassed.
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on 8 August 2010
This is not a mathematical treatise but and immensely readable adventure into the intriguing world of numbers. It is a perfect antidote for those who hated maths and arithmetic at school showing how their interest could have been aroused had they been taught wisely. Alex Bellos illustrates how numbers and relationships between individual numbers and classes of numbers are mystifyingly fascinating. Numberland is indeed a wonderland.
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on 1 December 2014
Don't buy this for Kindle - the figures and equations are completely scrambled. The figures appear in the wrong places in the wrong order with the wrong captions and sometimes the same figure appears several times in succession. Greek letters seem to appear in random places and the equations again are in the wrong places. The text itself looked good, but it was so difficult to read that I gave up.
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on 26 May 2016
Pretty good book, just perhaps a little too long winded. I feel like sometimes I have spent the time he was on his journeys actually reading what he did. I think if it was revised it would be much easier to read. Still, nice book and some very interesting information in there!
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on 12 April 2013
I'm studying Maths and Further Maths at A-level (AQA) and bought this book to read over a half-term holiday. This has got to be one of the best books that I have read- it was not too complex, informative and just overall very enjoyable.
I would strongly recommend this to anyone who is taking A-level Maths and is looking for some extra reading. The sections on sequences, logarithms, and graph theory are all relevant and very interesting. I wouldn't say that any mathematical understanding is necessary- this truly is a book for anyone who can (or wants to) appreciate the wonder of maths :)
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