‘Alex’s Adventures in Numberland’ by Alex Bellos

Alex's AdventuresWhat? An easy to read book about maths? Yes – and the curious title, delightfully reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s book about Alice, provides an instant insight into the playful approach to mathematics and the science of numbers that Bellos employs.

The author…
… is a journalist with a definite bent for numbers. For years he has enlivened the pages of the British newspaper The Guardian with a column about the everyday use and applications of mathematics. As Evan Davis of the BBC says, “Alex is one of the few people who can talk about numbers without being intimidating.”
Besides his work as a journalist, Alex is a broadcaster, public speaker and avid traveller.

The topics dealt with include the cognitive psychology of numbers, number systems, number bases, the abacus, Euclidean geometry, origami, arithmetic, pi, the golden section, algebra, logarithms, slide rules, sequences, prime numbers, puzzles, magic squares, probability, statistics, party tricks, non-Euclidean geometry and infinity… and that last item is where the discerning reader will sense the light fragrance of spirituality and especially innocent, joyful wonder at the coincidences and interrelated workings of numbers in an infinite Universe.

“Osho, I can’t perceive the end of it – or is there no end?” There is a beginning of the mind and there is an end of the mind, there is a beginning of the ego and there is an end of the ego, but there is no beginning to you and no end to you. And there is no beginning to the mystery of existence and no end to you. It is an ongoing process. Mysteries upon mysteries are waiting for you, hence the thrill and the ecstasy.

Feel ecstatic that there is no end to life, that when you have reached one peak, suddenly another peak starts giving you challenges – a higher one, a more arduous climb, a more dangerous reach. And when you have reached the other peak, there will be another peak…
The Book of Wisdom, Vol 1, #4

Travel, too
Bellos revels in travelling, visiting many remarkable specialists in as many countries to experience first-hand the exotic explorations into Numberland: Vedic mathematicians in India, paper-folders in the USA and Japan, Sudoku specialists in Japan, an ethnologist in Paris whose discoveries about counting words among the Munduruku (Amazon basin) form a theme in the book, Reno and Las Vegas for designers of gambling machines and mathematical algorithms to beat the tables… and many more places besides.

Although there are intriguing stories describing current discoveries and how frontiers of mathematics are constantly being pushed back, Bellos has done his homework thoroughly. His descriptions of thousands of years of human evolution around the globe provide the background for erudite analyses of how knowledge of numbers – and expertise in manipulating them – developed across the centuries. Remarkable, too, are his expositions on how discoveries in one country, such as India and Arab cultures, found their counterpart in ‘western’ philosophical and budding scientific circles. Even seemingly mundane subjects such as puzzles get adequate attention because of their roots in and links to mathematical principles (take Rubik’s Cube for example!).
As Bellos explains:

I have included a fair bit of historical material, since maths is the history of maths.

The stories are just that. No dry academic theory here, but lively, enthusiastic and thoroughly entertaining tales that are a joy to read. True, the maths may occasionally be a little daunting, but as Bellos is quick to state in his introduction:

If you feel your brain hurting, skip to the beginning of the next section and it will get easier again.

He adds, wisely:

Each chapter is self-contained, meaning that to understand it one does not have to have read the previous chapters.

There are dozens of colourful examples, sums, drawings and photographs. Appendices explain specific topics further, add proofs and provide ample additional reading. A glossary supports easier reading and a thorough index ensures that the attentive reader has a useful ‘road-map’.
Above all, it’s a book full of anecdotal material as well as serious mathematics, designed for both amateurs and professionals. And here is perhaps the key to the lightness of Bellos’ work:

When writing this book, my motivation was at all times to communicate the excitement and wonder of mathematical discovery.


Note: the American version of the book is called Here’s Looking at EuclidEuclid



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