Saturday, June 28, 2014

Alex Through the Looking Glass by Alex Bellos review – informative and quirky

From the ubiquity of one to our love of seven, Bellos explores and explains the meanings we attach to numbers

Touching base … In an online survey, respondents found 10 to be 'practical, logical, tidy, reassuring and honest'. Photograph: Alamy

In Review's roundup of "books of the year" last December, Tom Stoppard chose The New York Times Book of Mathematics, a volume that features surprisingly few equations and diagrams. This choice reminded me of a conversation 16 years ago, when he mentioned to me that one theme of his play Arcadia occurred to him after he read James Gleick's Chaos on a beach. Stoppard has always looked out for good popular expositions of the big ideas in science and maths and he enjoyed BBC's Horizon programmes, despite "all those sodding graphics".
    These days, with scientists continually urged to "engage" with the public, there is an unprecedented amount of material for anyone interested in modern science. And there is plenty of good writing on mathematics, too – Marcus du Sautoy, Simon Singh, Ian Stewart and others have proved impressively resourceful at mining maths and the lives of its practitioners for good stories that highlight the subject's allure, power and utility.

    Alex Bellos, the Guardian's maths blogger, joined the front rank of popularisers three years ago with his Adventures in Numberland. He showed himself to be an amiable tour-guide – informative, amusing and with a sharp eye for quirky stories. He continues in this vein with his new book, covering more demanding topics, but with the same lucidity and lightness of touch.

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