Alex Bellos has given us a rare and precious thing—a passionate, witty book about maths that shows just how deeply it relates to both our lives and the worldby Ian Stewart / June 21, 2010 / Leave a comment
Alex’s Adventures in Numberland By Alex Bellos (Bloomsbury, £18.99)
When I was a teenager I devoured every book the Folkestone public library had on mathematics, which wasn’t many. They did a good job, I hasten to add, with classics like George Gamow’s One Two Three… Infinity and most of Eric Temple Bell’s output. But in those days, there weren’t a lot of books about maths that could sensibly grace the shelves of a public library.
Things have changed. During the 1980s and 1990s, scientists and mathematicians came to terms with the need to communicate their ideas to a general audience. The massive sales of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time briefly opened the floodgates for popular science to such an extent that airport bookshops had special shelves for the topic, but mostly this muddied the waters. Publishers and authors quickly discovered that we can’t all be Hawkings. When the mud had cleared, the market for popular science settled down again, but at a higher level than before. Nowadays, when someone cracks one of the big mathematical problems like Fermat’s last theorem or the Poincaré conjecture, you know that soon after there will be not just one book about it, but several.
Science writing is a competitive field, and most of the books that get into print are of reasonable quality. Today, my former self would have no difficulty satisfying his reading appetites, and would learn a lot of useful things in the process. But writing about maths remains a very particular subset of science writing, and it has its own special challenges. On the whole, mathematicians can’t parade gigantic apparatus like the Large Hadron Collider, or talk about sexy experiments involving Mars rovers, or make movies about cute meerkats. Conventional wisdom also states that they can’t include formulas, which is a bit like expecting astronomers to avoid mentioning stars or planets. There is no shortage of good popular maths books. It’s only every so often, though, that one comes along that is outstanding—and Alex’s Adventures in Numberland is one of them.
Science writers have to understand science and be able to write, but hardly anyone gets trained in both. So the profession splits into scientists who have acquired the knack of writing for the public, and journalists who have picked up enough of the science. Alex Bellos falls into the second category, but got into writing about maths by…