Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Alex's Adventures In Numberland

Pic courtesy of the utterly wonderful xkcd

"One, two, many..."

You're probably thinking of one of two things here.  Either some deep-Amazon tribe you vaguely remember hearing of that can't count past two, or if you're like me then you're thinking of Detritus the troll in Terry Pratchett's wonderful Men At Arms.

What does this have to do with Alex Bellos' fun new book?  Well, he's in the first camp, and does a great job of filling in the details on what I'd always thought was maybe something of an urban myth.  Tribes who don't count past two(ish) do exist, and it's not as simple as you'd think - sometimes you simply need "a few", we still do in the western world most of the time, "ish" is probably used more often than exact numbers in everyday life, and for good reason.  Bellos uses this as a starting point for a popular maths book that doen't so much look at maths as an abstract subject but concentrates on how humans use, misuse and interact with it.

Each chapter covers a different area of maths - series, probability and geometry for example - and delves into the human side of them.  We all remember Pythagoras' Theorem from school, but how many know about the hundreds of different amateur proofs over the years?  How did a skewed bell curve get a Parisian baker into a fight with the mathematician Poincare?  Is there any point to the continued efforts to calculate Pi?

This is just as much a study of human psychology in relation to numbers as it is a book about maths, and all the more entertaining for it.

EDIT: And it also inspired a little bit of 3D modelling with Blender....

Alex's Adventures In Numberland
Alex Bellos
ISBN: 9780747597162

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