Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Alex's Adventures in Numberland: Dispatches From The Wonderful World of Mathmatics by Alex Bellos

Despite having no aptitude for science (I failed Biology and Chemistry O'Level and took two attempts to pass Maths), I am strangely attracted to books and tv programmes about the subject in its many guises. I have read this book very slowly and renewed it at the library three times. Some parts I have had to read several times to make any sense of, other parts I skipped altogether because I knew I would never understand them. Despite this, I understood enough to find this book fascinating.

Bellos looks at the social aspects of numbers, how we learn them, what we use them for, the impact they have on our lives. He writes about the great mathematicians and their discoveries and also about the fun side of maths - the Rubic's cube and origami. One of things I found most interesting was the descriptions of people who have the ability to calculate very complex numbers in their heads:

One of the earliest-known examples was a Derbyshire farmhand, Jedediah Buxton, who amazed locals with his abilities in multiplication despite being barely able to read....... In 1754, curiosity about Buxton's talent lead to him being invited to London, where he was examined by members of the Royal Society. He seems to have had some of the symptoms of high-functioning autism, for when he was taken to see Shakespeare's Richard III he was left nonplussed by the experience, though he notified his hosts that the actors had taken 5,202 steps and spoken 14,445 words.

It was possible to make a career on the stage out of these skills and people would flock to see them in Victorian times. 

Memorising Pi is another popular feat among people who enjoy memorising lists of numbers. For those who find this too easy, there is a competition which involves reciting Pi while juggling. And speaking of juggling, there is a man named Colin Wright who has developed a mathematical notation for juggling. In the words of Bellos it 'might not sound like much, but has electrified the international juggling community'.

One of the main joys of this book for me was the host of colourful and eccentric characters that pop up. It seems that those people who can really see into maths and see the beauty in it, see the rest of life in rather a skewed way. They plough their own furrow, they dance to a different drummer.

I found this book fascinating, and I'm sure it would be even more fascinating to a reader who knows anything about maths.


  1. I do find books about the history of mathematics fascinating, and you are probably right that this interest is enhanced by studying the subject. When I think about how difficult some of the concepts are to understand, I can only marvel at the minds that developed them in the first place. I'll look out for this book.

  2. Karyn - if you know about maths I think you'll like this. As I said, I had to miss chunks out because I just couldn't get my head around it, but I still really enjoyed the book.