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Alex's Adventures in Numberland

Proving maths can be fun, Sara Jebril takes us through the rabbit-hole of Alex Bellos’ book

Place one grain of wheat on the corner square of a chessboard and continue doubling across adjacent squares. “How much wheat would you need to fill the final square?,” Alex Bellos writes. “if you started counting a grain of wheat per second at the very moment of the Big Band 13 billion years or so ago, then you would not even have counted up to a tenth of 226 by now.”

After picking up the book in Waterstones, Alex’s Adventures in Numberland has been once of the favourite books ever since. He describes the book has giving dispatches from the wonderful world of mathematics and acts as a guide in search of weird and wonderful phenomena. While covering various topics, he sets out the explain why he finds maths interesting and includes some fascinating mathematical proofs. Through explaining simpler maths concepts like Pythagoras’ theorem, he explores the man’s role as charismatic leader of a mystical sect, and discusses numerology with a modern day Pythagorean, Jerome Carter.

Alex Bellos is the author of many great books including Alex’s Adventures in Numberland and its sequel, Alex Through the Looking-Glass. Both books are bestsellers and have been translated into more than twenty languages. As well as being a writer, he is also a broadcaster and journalist who is currently running a maths and puzzle blog for the Guardian. In his column, Alex Bellos’s Monday Puzzle, he sets a fort-nightly problem for Guardian readers, such as a crossword that counts itself. In his first popular science book, he spent a year travelling around the world interviewing people whose lives have a connection to maths. And in his next book he travelled widely, linking mathematics to civilisation to understand how we, as humans, view the world through numbers. Keeping technical material to a minimum, each chapter of his books is self-contained and aimed at a reader who has no previous background knowledge.

Bellos meets the world’s best chimpanzee mathematicians, the creators of the supercomputer that can calculate pi to two billion decimal places and more. He explores why numbers are great but letters are better, looking at the early use of the unknown quantity and its symbol. The book transfers his enthusiasm in an original and very entertaining style. From Numberland¸ you can learn that quadratic equations underpin modern science but also the impossibility of random shuffling in iPod songs. He looks at studies of the Munduruki, tribespeople from a remote part of the Amazon who can only count up to four or five. Travelling around the world, Bellos reveals history along with many stories of incredible achievements. From attempting to apply algebra on the alphabet, he looks at Euclid, the greatest mathematician of all times. Numberland teaches that maths is timeless. It does not ages, and concepts like symmetry, algebra and geometry will be forever unchanged.

In Numberland, he explores why mathematical ideas really do underpin our lives, uncovering hidden laws in the everyday world and proves that mathematicians can really be funny. The author relates these key ideas to philosophy, religious, magic, history and basic sheep counting to the Munduruku. Starting from where numbers come from, he proves undoubtably that mathematics truly presents a world of beauty. Its theorems will be as they always were. So if you’ve ever been interested in the tyranny of ten, the beauty of teeth of have just wanted to take a different look at randomness, Alex Bellos might be able to give you some answers.

From Issue 11

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