Bringing excitement to mathematics, one number at a time’
WHAT ACCOUNTS for the world’s innumeracy? That common, widespread fear of numbers that makes mathematics unapproachable except to a priestly class of geeks? The maths dread, which seems to cut across the modern world, has its beginnings, undoubtedly, in the way that we are introduced to it in schools — the early beginnings explaining the almost instinctive diffidence many of us experience when faced with it. This you’ll find, in a reading of Alex’s Adventures in Numberland, is ironic in the first degree since apparently babies are born with an instinctive grasp of ratios, proportions and elementary mathematical ideas (they stare longer at incorrect addition!). What nature achieved through millions of years of evolution in an inborn affinity to mathematics, is undone in most of us by modern education.
But the loss is ours because as Alex Bellos makes abundantly clear in his new book, there is just a lot of fun and tickle to be had with math that the mathematicians haven’t really let us in on. In Alex’s Adventures in Numberland, the author takes us on an exciting journey through humanity’s relationship with numbers and mathematics.
Alex is no mathematician (he studied math in Cambridge but now earns his living as a journalist) and the book seems to gain from this. Like a reporter from within us sent to live among the heathens, his despatches from the mathematical world are made eminently readable because he approaches it from the same vantage point as us. His audience is someone like himself and this informs his detailing and emphasis on his audience’s benefit.
In this manner, he takes us on a wonderfully idiosyncratic journey that is part math and part cultural studies. For instance, how do the Munduruku tribe of the Amazon — whose number system only contains ‘one, two, three, four-ish and a handful’ — actually count or why did the ancient Indian number system account for numbers so great that they are more numerous than the total number of molecules that have ever existed in the universe since time began? You’ll also meet a sapient ape who outdid Japanese children in a math test and the menger sponge (a geometrical object), which has infinite surface area and is invisible at the same time along the way learning about Sudoku, the abacus used by the Mayans, gambling strategies and how crocheting is giving us insights into geometry.
The book’s achievement is its ability not just to bring out the everyday playfulness and ‘would-you-believe- it’ wonderment in mathematics but also critically, to ground a subject that is often seen as hyperbolic, in the cultural. Mathematics is not just relevant and fun, but in the story of our engagement with it, lies the better qualities of us as a species.