Alex’s Adventures in Numberland by Alex Bellos: A review

Thirty-fourth book reviewed as part of the 130 Challenge.

This is a fabulous chronicle of the most esoteric subject in existence.

Alex Bellos is witty, serious, engaging and if I may say so, utterly charming in his narration of the history of mathematics. He has organized the book in the way that allows him to be chronological while also taking diversions from time to time to connect with what’s happening now in the field of mathematics.

alex's adventures cover

Just like that unsuspecting shark, you’ll also be taken aback by how much fun this book really is!

He begins with a systematic exposition of the idea of numbers and the need for them and progresses steadily at a really comfortable pace to cover everything from shepherds using a hybrid base of numbers for counting their sheep to humans understanding incredibly weird and abstract concepts in mathematics with the help of crochet!

On this journey, he makes some astonishing revelations and keeps you thoroughly entertained. I’m an engineer, so I might be slightly better positioned to understand this text, but the format and language of the book assumes nothing of the reader (without being condescending) and explains every concept in a way that even a lay person will be able to follow.

It’s no mean feat to be able to explain concepts like Zeno’s paradox, regression to the mean, squaring a circle and Riemann’s non-Euclidean geometry without using any equations. Bellos does that and more! He’s juggling hardcore mathematics, entertaining (and often humorous) anecdotes and practical applications of math at the same time!

The most endearing aspect of the book is that it doesn’t take sides. It is incredibly neutral in its treatment of all the branches of math, no matter how bogus they may seem (I’m looking at you, Vedic math). All the people in this book have been treated as creative artists and their work has been explored with childlike wonder.

There are many tidbits in the book that refresh your ideas of math. Indeed, for me this was a refresher of my entire math curriculum from school. And this book is also an answer (without actually trying to be) to all those people who ask – ‘Why do we learn math if it has no real application in life?’ Well, as amply demonstrated by Bellos, everything that is ever done in mathematics, be it silly games or idle curiosity, everything has been put to some use and had contributed to the progress of humanity.

If nothing, you should read this book to learn about an encyclopedia of sequences (that also converts them into music), to see the unbelievable impact of the invention of the electronic calculator, to imagine a world of rivalries between human equation solvers and where human calculators would indulge in math duels! But if showmanship is not your cup of tea, then there’s a really good critical examination of Pascal’s wager, an exploration of the wonders of Pascal’s triangle and of course, a fitting end to the book with a mind-mangling (a term I learned from this book) discussion of Cantor’s various infinities.

You must, must, must read this book. See the excerpts to know why (excerpts annotated with a lot of love)


One comment

  1. My son might enjoy this.


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