09 May 2014

Alex Through the Looking Glass

The topics might sound off-putting and difficult to some – calculus, geometry, fractals and complex numbers to name a few – but don’t let that dissuade. Alex’s enthusiasm and storytelling present numbers in a unique  and interesting way.

I was fascinated to learn that 60% of measurements and statistics start with a 1, 2 or 3. A scan of the financial pages will quickly confirm this. It’s called Benford’s Law and has been used to detect company fraud in record keeping.

Alex conducted a survey to find the world’s favourite number. I was not surprised to read it was seven, my favourite too but I was surprised at the patterns of sensitivity and how number choice can affect marketing and purchasing decisions. It’s not called 7-up for nothing!

I have a companion interest in ancient history so I particularly enjoyed the stories of early discoveries. Maths has rules but it is a creative process. The ancient Greek mathematician, Eratosthenes, (died 194BC) used shadows, triangles and geography to compute the circumference of the world over 2,000 years ago.

Despite the many mathematical achievements of the classical period, negative numbers were unknown. It was in China, around 300BC, where they were first conceived and in India where they first found practical application as a way to define and calculate debt.

Some of the theory will not be for everyone and I admit that sometimes when reading late at night, I skipped it. But Alex himself makes it clear that the reader does not have to read everything, the reader can pick and choose.

This is a book that not only brings maths alive but brings it into the lounge room and makes numbers and their stories accessible to a wide audience.  I was personally inspired to renew an interest in numbers, which was very timely given last month was Maths Awareness Month and cyberspace is still buzzing with mathematics.

Alex Through the Looking Glass is the sequel to the best-seller Alex’s Adventures in Numberland which was shortlisted for the BBC Samuel Johnston Prize

Reviewed by Sandy Fussell
Title: Alex Through the Looking Glass
Author: Alex Bellos
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PB RRP $29.99
Publication Date: May 2014
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 9781408817773
Type: Adult, Non Fiction

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