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Alex's Adventures in Numberland by Alex…

Alex's Adventures in Numberland (original 2010; edition 2010)

by Alex Bellos

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6091716,018 (3.89)12
Title:Alex's Adventures in Numberland
Authors:Alex Bellos
Info:Bloomsbury (2010), Hardcover
Collections:Read but unowned
Tags:dec, 2012, maths, nf

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Alex's Adventures in Numberland by Alex Bellos (2010)


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There is a difference between a primer and something written for laymen. This book more closely aligns with my interpretation of the former. For people who have no familiarity with mathematical concepts, this book would probably be delightful. For those who are aware of the more famous math intrigues but are amateurs (or, like me, more interested in the history, applications, and explanations than the proofs), this book retreads old, familiar ground. Anyone who watched Numb3rs or – painful though it may be to say it – read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code are probably going to find themselves rather bored by many of the chapters. The section on the Golden Ratio is particularly yawn-inducing; it adds nothing more than the basic information, including its relation to the Fibonacci sequence and its occurrence in nature.

There were some things that I hadn’t heard about – the musical rendition of Recaman’s Sequence was a particularly pleasing find, and I highly recommend looking it up on YouTube if you read the book but didn’t bother going to check – and a few beloved ones, like Fermat’s Last Theorem, but otherwise it relied on the pop math that is so prevalent as to be commonplace now (See: P versus NP and its increasing ubiquity on TV shows of late).

If the words Reimann’s Hypothesis, Srinivasa Ramanujan, or gambler’s fallacy ring even a distant bell, you will probably not find anything groundbreaking or new in this book.

This is not to say that the book is without merit; for those who don’t know anything about math, I imagine this would be a great introduction to the practical, the theoretical, and the just plain fun aspects of mathematical theory. It helps as well that Alex Bellos is a charming writer. In one chapter, he explains with the glee of a child receiving a present a hundred-day experiment in which he charted the weight of baguettes every morning. His descriptions, particularly of some of the more eccentric people in the field, like Gregory and David Chudnovsky, are delightful. And he has a knack for sliding in humor at just the right moment, as when he is discussing the almost mythical lore of pi: “Pi has gone by this name only since 1706, when the Welshman William Jones introduced the symbol π in his book, the snappily titled, A New Introduction to the Mathematics, for the Use of some Friends who have neither Leisure, Convenience, nor, perhaps, Patience, to search into so many different Authors, and turn over so many tedious Volumes, as is unavoidably required to make but tolerable progress in the Mathematics” (111).

His descriptions of the math are … less charming. He relates his experience meeting Martin Gardner, who explains that it was his own helplessness at anything more difficult than calculus that allowed him to write about it in such a way that even math-dullards could understand; Bellos clearly has no such problems. It is abundantly clear that he is startlingly intelligent, and writes clearly otherwise, but with the restrictions bound to someone who understands something intuitively. I have read other books that explained mathematical problems and theorems in ways that even I – definitely not a math genius – could understand, but the book had numerous instances where Bellos turned to the proofs, apparently assured that this was sufficient to explain. It was not. (Like Martin Gardner, I am similarly hopeless with anything after basic calculus).

He also has a few snide comments that frankly surprised me, as he confessed his love of writing in the introduction. One such that managed to rankle was this gem: “The propositions of The Elements are true in perpetuity. They do not become less certain or indeed less relevant with time (which is why Euclid is still taught at schools and why Greek playwrights, poets and historians are not)” (57).

A. They are, and B. If they weren’t, that would be indicative of a problem, not an indication of their lack of relevance in some kind of academic Darwinism. Or, if one prefers: 1. They are, and 2. If they weren’t… Seriously though, I don't know of anyone who escaped high school without having read at least The Odyssey and probably Oedipus Rex as well. I want to believe that this is sarcasm, but he sounds so sincere in this that I have a hard time convincing myself.

It may sound as if I’m nitpicking, and I am, because truly, this book wasn’t bad. As a primer, it is well-written, with an endearing narrator, and just enough fun to make even the more boring math palatable. Thankfully, most of the math isn’t at all in need of spicing up – the discussion of Cantor’s explanation of the concept of larger/smaller infinities is quietly brilliant, and a treat to read in and of itself, and Bellos’s obvious excitement at its implications make it hard not to be equally swept up by the awesomeness of it all.
( )
  kittyjay | Apr 23, 2015 |
I managed to learn some new things and more detailed facts about a few old things in a fun and engaging way. If you are curious about your world, or into math, check this book out. ( )
  rouilliewilkerson | Aug 19, 2014 |
Un libro di divulgazione, piacevole e di facile lettura Ogni capitolo tratta un argomento a sé stante, indipendente dagli altri. Una specie di “non tutti sanno che” su argomenti matematici. Il primo capitolo tratta di “antropologia matematica”: da come l’uomo ha iniziato a contare a come si facessero a fare le moltiplicazioni con i numeri romani. Poi si spazia dal gioco d’azzardo agli spazi iperbolici, dalla distribuzione normale all’albergo di Hilbert, con un numero infinito di stanze. In ogni capitolo l’autore incontra una persona collegata all’argomento: l’antropologo che studia le ultime tribù di cacciatori raccoglitori, la professoressa di matematica che fa superfici iperboliche all’uncinetto, lo sbancatore di casinò. Un libro gradevole e non faticoso, che ho letto la sera a letto per svago. Spesso mi sono trovato a leggere libri che trattavano argomenti scientifici scritti da giornalisti sportivi che non capiscono niente di scienza e altre volte, purtroppo, anche fisici che capiscono tutto ma non sono in grado di spiegare niente. Questa è la volta felice di un giornalista laureato in matematica. ( )
  SergioPerkunas | Apr 10, 2013 |
I really enjoyed this book. It is very well written, covers how different cultures use maths and talks about the people who actually do maths for a living. It was nice to read a book about maths with such warmth and without the feeling that my brain was going to pop! ( )
  martensgirl | Jun 7, 2012 |
Here's Looking at Euclid is a collection of stories about math, from the development of number and counting systems all the way to transfinite numbers and hyperbolic spaces.

Alex Bellos does an excellent job of explaining very difficult subjects in simpler terms. He includes many small side-stories that add to the richness of the text. While the illustrations are not numerous, they are key to explaining some topics and are very well executed. Above all, Bellos conveys his enthusiasm for math, which, if one is already inclined to like math, his enthusiasm encourages one to begin reading the many books he lists in the bibliography.

While this book is terrific at explaining most topics to the non-mathematician, a few of the explanations do require some background in math to be fully understandable.

Overall, this is a wonderful book! (Then again, I love math.) ( )
  LMHTWB | Dec 26, 2011 |
Showing 1-5 of 15 (next | show all)
With sprinklings of exclamation marks and anecdotes (mostly of meetings with eccentric mathematicians) among the equations, and chapter headings such as "The Life of Pi" and "The X-Factor", this is as reader-friendly as a book like this is going to get. I cannot promise that it will hold your keen interest all the time, but try not to be scared of it.
It’s often said, for instance, that a translation can’t ever be an adequate substitute for the original. But a translation, Bellos writes, isn’t trying to be the same as the original, but to be like it. Which is why the usual conceptual duo of translation — fidelity, and the literal — is too clumsy. These ideas just derive from the misplaced anxiety that a translation is trying to be a substitute.
When his book works, he's like an intrepid cosmic explorer, floating in an airship over a strange planet, and describing the fascinating things he sees. Down there, for example, on the eighth-century Northumbrian coast, he spots the Venerable Bede, who has worked out a way to count to a million simply by holding parts of his body.
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When I walked into Pierre Pica's cramped paris apartment I was overwhelmed by the stench of mosquito repellent.
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Alex's Adventures in Numberland was published under the title Here's Looking at Euclid in the United States.
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Explodes the myth that maths is best left to the geeks. Covering subjects from adding to algebra, from set theory to statistics, and from logarithms to logical paradoxes, this title explains how mathematical ideas underpin just about everything in our lives. It also explains the strategy of how best to gamble in a casino.; In this richly entertaining and accessible book, Alex Bellos explodes the myth that maths is best left to the geeks. Covering subjects from adding to algebra, from set theory to statistics, and from logarithms to logical paradoxes, he explains how mathematical ideas underpin just about everything in our lives. Alex explains the surprising geometry of the 50p piece, and the strategy of how best to gamble it in a casino. He shines a light on the mathematical patterns in nature, and on the peculiar predictability of random behavior. He eats a potato crisp whose revolutionary shape was unpalatable to the ancient Greeks, and he shows the deep connections between maths, religion and philosophy. Alex weaves a journey from primary school to university level maths, from ancient history to the computing frontline, and from St Louis, Missouri, to Braintree, Essex. He meets the world's fastest mental calculators in Germany, consults a numerologist in the US desert, meets a startlingly numerate chimpanzee in Japan, and seeks advice from a venerable Hindu sage in India. An unlikely but exhilarating cocktail of history, reportage and mathematical proofs, Alex's dispatches from 'Numberland' show the world of maths to be a much friendlier and more colourful place than you might have imagined.… (more)

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