Most of us have feared math since childhood. To most, it represents equations and formulae rather than something that underpins everything in our daily lives, from the structure of our iPods to the beauty of a smile, to how leaves grow. In this delightful book, Alex Bellos tries to prove that the ability to calculate fast has nothing to do with understanding the beauty of the subject. In charming, witty prose, he peels away the abstruseness surrounding math to reveal the magic of numbers and the elegance of their underlying patterns to the lay reader.
There are moments of epiphany. For instance, when I discovered that a variant of slide rules—a defunct 17th century calculator—is still used by pilots to navigate despite being aided by the most advanced computers. Or that natural phenomena, such as the number of petals in a flower or the number of seeds, are mostly 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 55…the famous Fibonacci sequence, where each number is the sum of the preceding two. Elegantly, the ratio of each successive pair tends to be 1.618, the so-called golden proportion, or phi, which finds equal application in the construction industry and aesthetics. It seems that in the most attractive smile—the big top front teeth are wider than the adjacent ones by a factor of phi.
Alex’s Adventures in Numberland: Bloomsbury, 448 pages, £18.99 (around Rs1,300).
Bellos’ book, part-travelogue, part-history and part-reportage, traipses through time and around the world to unravel the links math has with philosophy, religion, aesthetics and nature. In its grandeur and scope of subject matter, it resembles Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. Math was never so romantic, never so accessible and never so much fun.
As he goes back and forth between topics, he exposes interesting everyday fallacies, such as the gambler’s belief that one is due for a win after a string of losses, or how the odds of winning a double jackpot are not weird after all, while introducing mind-boggling concepts such as countable infinities and uncountable ones.
Counting, it appears, is not so simple after all. Bellos goes back in time to decipher the origins of numbers. As children, most of us are taught the basics of counting using our fingers. Five and five make 10, include your toes, and that makes 20. This is why we still use the decimal number system with base 10, while 20 was another popular base (a base is the number of digits in a number system). But does the limitation of using body parts lead us to only these two numbers as bases?
Meet the Venerable Bede, an eighth century clergyman, who devised a system for counting up to a million. Grasp your loins with your left hand with the thumb pointing towards the genitals. That is 90,000, the priest is supposed to have said, forgetting his holy propriety for a moment.
Such quirky characters and incidents—an ancient Greek mathematician with thighs of gold, whiskered Victorians who measured everything in sight, how tally sticks (an ancient number calculator) burnt down Westminster Palace—make the book memorable.
They enable us to connect the dots, see the underlying pattern to the big ideas and grapple with concepts that we think should be best left to grey old men in dusty university classrooms or a mad genius like John Nash in the movie A Beautiful Mind.
“The thrill of maths is the moment of instant revelation…when suddenly everything makes sense,” writes Bellos. “It is immensely satisfying, an almost physical pleasure.” That, aptly, sums up the book.