Alex's Adventures in Numberland: Dispatches from the Wonderful World of Mathematics

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Alex's Adventures in Numberland: Dispatches from the Wonderful World of Mathematics

Alex's Adventures in Numberland: Dispatches from the Wonderful World of Mathematics

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Whether writing about how algebra solved Swedish traffic problems, visiting the Mental Calculation World Cup to disclose the secrets of lightning calculation, or exploring the links between pineapples and beautiful teeth, Bellos is a wonderfully engaging guide who never fails to delight even as he edifies.

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? In probing the many intrigues of that most beloved of numbers, pi, he visits with two brothers so obsessed with the elusive number that they built a supercomputer in their Manhattan apartment to study it. Our counting numbers (1, 2, 3, etc) are probably less than 10,000 years old, an offshoot of language, and there were probably no more than a handful of these discrete units for most of that time. Their lines tended to compress the distances between higher numbers — a logarithmic as opposed to linear depiction. The discussion of the Hilbert Hotel, Cantor and infinity was very difficult to grasp but I imagine I am not the only one.Chapter 1 discusses the evolution of counting and is devoted to the limitations of the base 10 numeral system under which the West operates. The record for pi memorisation whilst juggling is held by Mats Bergsten (Sweden) who has recited 9778 digits while juggling three balls. Exploring the mysteries of randomness, he explains why it is impossible for our iPods to randomly select songs.

From the thoughts of generations of mathematicians, our eyes have been opened to special numbers such as pi – the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter that pops up everywhere in scientific theories – and the golden ratio, a number that exists in nature in the way leaves are arranged around stems and the shape of a nautilus shell, and is now used by designers of beautiful objects (such as iPods). To usher the reader into the 20th century Bellos explores the ideas of Georg Cantor and David Hilbert on infinity. The maths of Pythagoras is the maths we use today, whereas the scientific thinking of Aristotle has largely been consigned to history.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. It's no mean feat to be able to explain concepts like Zeno's paradox, regression to the mean, squaring a circle and Riemann's non-Euclidean geometry without using any equations. The chapter on Vedic Mathematics was insightful, but I still do not see how this method can be considered easier than the traditional method I was taught. Photograph: Wong Maye-E/AP Mathematics has revealed the underlying structures of nature, such as the golden ratio that defines the shape of a nautilus's shell. Alex Bellos has a very good way of writing, easy to read and sprinkled, sparingly, with a bit of humour too - thoroughly enjoyable.

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. The title is enough however, to put off my non-mathsy girlfriend, who accused me of being a "geek" for reading it.What ensues is both a historical tour and spontaneous encounters with some of the most eccentric people currently operating on the fringes of mathematics. From the world's fastest mental calculators in Germany to numerologists in the US desert, from a startlingly numerate chimpanzee in Japan to venerable Hindu sages in India, these dispatches from 'Numberland' are an unlikely but exhilarating cocktail of history, reportage and mathematical proofs. But you would be hard-pressed to find a book on this subject with the same humour, wonder, and with the comfort of knowing that the author is resolutely on your side on this (sometimes difficult) adventure through the land of numbers and shapes. 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. He commences by describing how different cultures use counting and numbers, and in many ways this is the most interesting part of the book.

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). Bellos starts his tour of the mathematical world with some anthropology, asking whether numbers are something natural to humans, or whether they are learned and constructed. Most of the anecdotes and stories about former mathematicians I already knew, but it’s nice to have them all in one place.

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).

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