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# Alex's Adventures in Numberland

## By Alex Bellos

Paperback (other formats)

RRP £8.99

Our price: £7.19

You save: £1.80

In stock, usually despatched within 24 hours.

# Trade review

# Synopsis

# Book Details

Publisher: |
---|

Bloomsbury Publishing |

Publication Date: |

04-Apr-2011 |

ISBN: |

9781408809594 |

# Guardian review

the guardian Thu 14 April 2011

Three months or so in the life of Alex Bellos: one day he buys a digital weighing scale. The next day he goes to Greggs, buys a baguette, and weighs it. He does the same thing for 100 days, and tabulates the results. ("Perhaps the most disconcerting emotional reaction I was having to Greggs' baguettes was what happened when the weights were either extremely heavy or extremely light.") But by the time you get to this part of the book Chapter 10, to be precise Bellos's behaviour does not strike you as particularly surprising.

This is the kind of thing mathematicians do when they want to get down and dirty and in this instance practically demonstrate the Bell curve of probability as recognised by Carl Friedrich Gauss. You can also calculate pi to two decimal places by throwing a piece of wire on to a board marked with regularly spaced parallel lines 1,100 times, as one Captain Fox did while recovering from wounds in the American civil war. Or, were you to find yourself with time to kill while imprisoned in Buchenwald, you could do what Curt Herzstark did and design a hand-held mechanical calculator that looked a bit like a pepper-grinder, and was rendered instantly obsolete by the arrival of the pocket calculator. (To be allowed to develop your plans, you will have to be an acknowledged engineering genius in the first place.) Then again, if you are not so gifted, you can do what Graham Parker, a builder from Hampshire, did and spend 26 years solving the Rubik's Cube. Bellos does not record whether he is married or not. The current record for solving the Cube, incidentally, is 48.05 seconds.

There is an attraction to mathematical puzzles and quirks, an inner beauty which becomes apparent on close inspection. How weird is it that an object placed on rollers whose cross-section is the shape of a 50p piece will move across a flat surface smoothly, and not go up and down? How weird is it that whatever number you start a Fibonacci sequence with, the ratio of adjacent numbers will converge towards *phi*, the Golden Ratio? (Is that sentence gibberish? Your loss, but easily remedied.) Or that you can see the Golden Ratio at work in the design of both iPods and human teeth? Then there is the symmetry of equations, or the underlying order of numbers that, when revealed, seems extremely spooky. This is what Bellos calls the "wow" factor of maths, and if it seems unbelievable that such a thing can exist, then I suggest you read this book.

And these are not necessarily arcane matters, irrelevant to the way one runs one's life. There are a lot of maths whizzes in this book who have made fortunes from being able to manipulate numbers, and even if you are by no means a maths whizz it would be a good idea to have some familiarity with a few basic laws. If you do not have the concept of regression towards the mean as part of your mental furniture, you are going to spend a lot of time being frustrated and baffled. And basic concepts of probability are essential, too, otherwise you will be easy to con. Bellos demonstrates a particularly elegant sting perpetrated by those who would pretend to give 100% accurate stock market forecasts. The beauty of it is that it doesn't even appear to be illegal.

I would say that when you understand why only 23 people need be in a room together for there to be a 50:50 chance of two of them sharing a birthday, then you will be well on the road towards wisdom. (At one point, though, I think I spotted a mistake. On page 129 Bellos demonstrates a trick, known as Vedic Mathematics, which allows you to multiply numbers. I tried it with 7 and 3 and kept getting a result of 0, which must surely mean that I'm doing it wrong but what if I'm not?)

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.

# Guardian review

the guardian Thu 14 April 2011

Three months or so in the life of Alex Bellos: one day he buys a digital weighing scale. The next day he goes to Greggs, buys a baguette, and weighs it. He does the same thing for 100 days, and tabulates the results. ("Perhaps the most disconcerting emotional reaction I was having to Greggs' baguettes was what happened when the weights were either extremely heavy or extremely light.") But by the time you get to this part of the book Chapter 10, to be precise Bellos's behaviour does not strike you as particularly surprising.

This is the kind of thing mathematicians do when they want to get down and dirty and in this instance practically demonstrate the Bell curve of probability as recognised by Carl Friedrich Gauss. You can also calculate pi to two decimal places by throwing a piece of wire on to a board marked with regularly spaced parallel lines 1,100 times, as one Captain Fox did while recovering from wounds in the American civil war. Or, were you to find yourself with time to kill while imprisoned in Buchenwald, you could do what Curt Herzstark did and design a hand-held mechanical calculator that looked a bit like a pepper-grinder, and was rendered instantly obsolete by the arrival of the pocket calculator. (To be allowed to develop your plans, you will have to be an acknowledged engineering genius in the first place.) Then again, if you are not so gifted, you can do what Graham Parker, a builder from Hampshire, did and spend 26 years solving the Rubik's Cube. Bellos does not record whether he is married or not. The current record for solving the Cube, incidentally, is 48.05 seconds.

There is an attraction to mathematical puzzles and quirks, an inner beauty which becomes apparent on close inspection. How weird is it that an object placed on rollers whose cross-section is the shape of a 50p piece will move across a flat surface smoothly, and not go up and down? How weird is it that whatever number you start a Fibonacci sequence with, the ratio of adjacent numbers will converge towards *phi*, the Golden Ratio? (Is that sentence gibberish? Your loss, but easily remedied.) Or that you can see the Golden Ratio at work in the design of both iPods and human teeth? Then there is the symmetry of equations, or the underlying order of numbers that, when revealed, seems extremely spooky. This is what Bellos calls the "wow" factor of maths, and if it seems unbelievable that such a thing can exist, then I suggest you read this book.

And these are not necessarily arcane matters, irrelevant to the way one runs one's life. There are a lot of maths whizzes in this book who have made fortunes from being able to manipulate numbers, and even if you are by no means a maths whizz it would be a good idea to have some familiarity with a few basic laws. If you do not have the concept of regression towards the mean as part of your mental furniture, you are going to spend a lot of time being frustrated and baffled. And basic concepts of probability are essential, too, otherwise you will be easy to con. Bellos demonstrates a particularly elegant sting perpetrated by those who would pretend to give 100% accurate stock market forecasts. The beauty of it is that it doesn't even appear to be illegal.

I would say that when you understand why only 23 people need be in a room together for there to be a 50:50 chance of two of them sharing a birthday, then you will be well on the road towards wisdom. (At one point, though, I think I spotted a mistake. On page 129 Bellos demonstrates a trick, known as Vedic Mathematics, which allows you to multiply numbers. I tried it with 7 and 3 and kept getting a result of 0, which must surely mean that I'm doing it wrong but what if I'm not?)

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.