Belfast Telegraph

Monday 24 November 2014

Alex's Adventures in Numberland, By Alex Bellos

During my schooldays, mathematics was said to be the most difficult subject of all. We all had to do maths; but only a select few could actually "do" it.

We had dedicated teachers and extra after-school tuition. But for most pupils at my comprehensive in Hackney, maths was not only difficult but also extremely boring. It was hardly surprising that few took it for A levels.

Maths can be difficult, says Alex Bellos in this wonderful book, but it can also be inspiring, accessible and creative. If approached properly it can be fun, funny and truly fascinating. Those who skip maths miss out on one of the greatest achievements of the human race.

It is the textbooks that make maths dull and tedious. Devoid of context and history, maths is presented as a series of arid problems and equations. Bellos takes a radically different approach. He combines reportage and history, stories and anecdotes, science and philosophy, and a sense of illogical fun to make maths exciting.

We learn not just about numbers and how they are manipulated but also why some people do not "get" numbers, and certain cultures (such as the Amazonian Munduruku) find the whole idea of counting anything ludicrous. We learn about probability but also why our brains are so bad at understanding randomness. We are taken through the basics of geometry but also learn about the Greek cult of Pythagoras, the role geometry plays in Eastern cultures to illustrate the divine, and learn to master origami, the Japanese art of paper-folding. Maths is thus presented not as a mechanical exercise but as a series of linked stories. Understand the story and you have an inkling of how the problem is solved.

En route, Ballos introduces us to some fascinating characters. We meet mathematicians obsessed with the temperature of their tea, or "lightning calculators" who, as their moniker suggests, can do mental calculations at the speed of light. We visit jungles and casinos, eat crisps and do crochet.

Bellos puts everyday objects and cultural artefacts to good mathematical use. Football is used to explain probability, statistical paradoxes connected to the lottery, pi is given a literary expression, and computer games and Sudoku are related to everyday life. Bellos shows how knowledge of maths makes us more competent, critical and constructive – and enables us to appreciate the patterns, regular and random, that dominate our surroundings.

However, while Bellos is very good at connecting mathematics to everyday life, he is oblivious to larger associations. He concentrates either on ordinary things, like coins or crisps, or focuses on the obvious. With the mathematics of gambling he limits himself to blackjack and dice games, roulette wheels and slot machines. What about hedge funds and our casino economy, or the maths of subprime mortgages.

The bigger, philosophical point, that mathematics sometimes creates an illusion of certainty and hence becomes toxic, escapes him. Our financial crisis is a product of toxic maths that generated the impression that fabricated economic equations have a basis in reality.

"Maths is the history of maths," writes Bellos. But he is much stronger on maths than history. The history that we get is essentially that of Western mathematics. Other cultures provide exotic examples. So the monumental corpus of Muslim mathematics is reduced to prayer beads, the Kaaba and magic squares. Indian maths is limited to zero and Hindu seers. Chinese maths seems to have no other function than recreation. The emphasis on exotica, puzzles and paradoxes is entertaining - but it is also unoriginal.

Bellos could have used non-Western mathematics to make a much more important point: mathematics connects all the cultures on the planet. It is the nearest thing we have to a universal history. The quest for mathematics is driven by something deeper than reason and logic: our urge to recognise patterns.

In Western culture mathematics has largely been a quest for certainty. But we are beginning to realise that mathematics is, and will remain, an incomplete and imperfect language. Not every equation reflects something "real out there". This is a revolutionary awareness.

Bellos may be weak on such philosophical points, but his enthusiasm is infectious. He does not patronise his readers. Even those suffering from a phobia about maths would find his book revealing and insightful. Bellos's achievement is to demonstrate that,, in mathematics, we are all equal. Those who cannot "do" maths need not be left out.

Ziauddin Sardar's latest book is 'Balti Britain' (Granta)

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