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Three Toed Sloths and Seven League Boots: A…

Three Toed Sloths and Seven League Boots: A Dictionary of Numerical…

by Laurence Urdang

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An interesting idea (if you like that sort of thing) - a dictionary of numbers and numerical concepts. Not a book for mathematicians, but one for those who are interested in the social and historical uses and significance of number. The book is arranged like a dictionary, but in numerical order. There's a more conventional alphabetical index which allows one to travel in the other direction: "Sinbad the Sailor" leads us to 7, because of his seven voyages, for instance.

So far, so good. But there's a flaw, or rather quite a few of them. The first is minor, in that the facts contained within it are primarily social ones, although occasional mathematical concepts appear. Thus, the first entry is for -273 (absolute zero.) Apparently there aren't any interesting numbers below that. In the short miscellaneous section at the end, we learn of 'deficient' numbers (those whose factors sum to less than the number) but not of their companions, perfect and abundant numbers. This patchiness is, however, reflected in many other less technical areas. In this respect, it reminds me of crossword dictionaries I have seen which are clearly little more than one individual's lifetime accumulation of random facts, without research to flesh it out.

One could still forgive that flaw. But there are numerous errors of fact, and sloppy errors. A googol is 10 to the power 100, not 10 to the power 1000 as this book tells us. It would also have us believe that diamond weddings are celebrated at 75 years.

These flaws reduce the value of this book as a solid reference source, but it still contains entertaining trivia (the recipe for the cocktail '75') and curious linkages (the roaring forties and the quorum of the House of Commons.)

This is a fascinating curiosity, worth a small sum in a second-hand bookshop, but falls short of the goals it set itself. ( )
  kevinashley | Sep 27, 2008 |
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