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Ruth’s Reviews: Alex’s Adventures in Numberland

Ruth Francis, Nature’s Head of Press, is reviewing all the entries shortlisted for the Royal Society’s science book prize. She’ll be reading one per week and posting her thoughts on the news blog every Tuesday between now and the prize ceremony on 17 November

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Did you know that pi has inspired a literary subgenre; the piem, in which the number of letters per word is determined by pi? Or that crochet helped glean insights into a counterintuitive type of geometry? Did you ever believe the rumour that mathematics could be playful, or even beautiful?

Alex Bellos has had more than a decade to rehabilitate since his degree in mathematics and philosophy. He finally felt able to revisit the world of maths, exploring it with a new and childlike appreciation – he even renamed it ‘Numberland’. In his own words: “Entering the world of maths as an adult was very different […] the requirement to pass exams means that often the really engrossing stuff is passed over. Now I was free to wander down avenues just because they sounded curious.”

The mix of history, anecdote and equation is captivating and rarely pitched above the head of the lay reader, or indeed math-phobic.

Over twelve chapters – numbered from zero to eleven of course – Bellos covers a heady range of topics from puzzles and games to the evolution of counting and the emergence of zero with an infectious energy and humour. The inhabitants we encounter in Numberland are often kooky, and described with affection – pi-hunting brothers Gregory and David Chudnovsky are reminiscent of Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee; speech overlapping, never in disagreement.

Maths has a bad reputation; carrying a book about maths around for the last week caused colleagues and friends to question my sensibilities. But Bellos communicates brilliantly the wonder and excitement of mathematical discovery and I recommend following him down the rabbit hole.

Though I remain equation-averse I did catch my first glimpse of the previously elusive beauty of numbers.

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