Book Review: Alex's Adventures in Numberland

I'm going to admit this right off: I am not a maths person. I only managed to scrape an A* at GCSE by covering my room in flashcards of formulas and obsessively writing down equations, and even now I suspect it was a total fluke. So when my boyfriend, who is very into maths and science, offered to lend me his copy of Alex's Adventures in Numberland when I was waiting for an Amazon order to come and needed a book to read, I was a bit sceptical about it at first but thought I'd give it a try. And I'm very glad I did.

The book is basically written as something of a history of mathematics, although it actually turns out to be a history of much more than that - there's a lot of anthropology and linguistics in there too, which made it instantly more appealing to me as I really enjoy that kind of thing and I think it helped me ease into the book a little better, as well as adding to the feeling that mathematics truly is the international language - the chapter on zero, for example, focuses heavily on the development of mathematics in India, whilst the chapter on counting goes from the Amazon to Japan via medieval Lincolnshire. Alex is also a very patient teacher, guiding you through the processes for how certain calculations are worked out and turning what (for me) was complete gibberish into something clear and simple that I could actually understand despite not feeling like I have a particularly mathematical brain.

However, I must say that my favourite parts of the book are the interviews with various mathematicians and those involved in the mathematical world. The chapter on pi is particularly good for this, with the competitiveness of the various mathematicians involved to calculate the number to as many digits as possible really coming through as well as their love for the subject and dedication. Plus, as someone who's much more of a natural creative, I really like the ways in which they demonstrate mathematical elements in simplified ways, like the professor who's expressing a very complicated equation through a crocheted pattern based on the formula. That marriage of creativity and practical application is a thread running through the book and really ties it all together nicely in taking mathematics out of this abstract state and into real life.

It is a bit of a struggle to get going, but once you can begin to get your head around it it's actually a fairly engrossing read. A great re-introduction to a subject a lot of us will have dropped once we left school and proof that, as the risk of sounding cheesy, maths can actually be fun. Highly recommended.

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