Alex’s Adventures in Numberland – Alex Bellos

Mathematical Art - Escher
Alex Bellos has presented an entertaining and interesting romp through the world of numbers – or Numberland as he calls it. You should read it – especially if you are English, as apparently we are an innumerate country!!

Bellos turns this into a good read by focusing on the weird and interesting characters in Numberland, that is, the mathematicians, as well as exploring strange and sometimes possibly useful facts about numbers. There are quirky reviews of tribes who have no words for numbers, and summaries of the uses and differences between base 10, base 12, base 2 and so on, in which we are shown how base 12 is a much more sensible counting system, and how other cultures have used different systems, depending on their needs and beliefs.

The whole of mathematics is here, it seems – though I’m no authority. Chapters on probability give clear explanations of the maths, as well as details about gambling, fruit machines and the collapse in the stock market. The curve of normal distribution is explained simply, and Bellos even manages to give a fairly clear account of three and four dimensional geometries, something that has always baffled me.

Non-fiction is so undemanding – and this is largely a narrative account focusing on simple stories. My only complaint is that at times Bellos makes leaps that he explicitly chooses not to explain, whilst at others he jumps logical steps in ways that left me baffled. There is an appendix, but I would have preferred one that took these lacunae and filled them in.

The Oldfield Park Bookshop

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