Book review: Alex’s Adventures In Numberland by Alex Bellos

When I gave a talk about the Curious Maths Of Alice In Wonderland recently, I was extremely proud of myself for coming up with the slide title ‘Here’s Looking At Euclid’. I even flagged it up as the best joke in the talk.

You can imagine my horror to discover that that’s the American title of Alex’s Adventures in Numberland – itself a play on the very title I was talking about.

While Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland can be seen as a satire on 19th century maths, Alex’s adventures are rather more explicit: he visits anthropologists who have forgotten how to count, numerologists, a guru of Vedic Maths, the inventor of Sudoku… a dramatis personae not much less bizarre than the Mock Turtle and friends.

It’s a very accessible read – Bellos, although armed with a maths degree, is a journalist more than a mathematician (I’m coming to the conclusion that most of the best maths writers are writers who decide on maths rather than mathematicians who decide on writing), and exactly the sort of thing I want to write when I grow up.

Although Bellos does some digging into the seedy underworld of maths — I found myself scratching my head at the numerologist and the dentist with the golden ratio device — he’s very careful not to criticise the pseudo-maths. I’m not sure I’d have had such restraint.

There’s something for the expert as well as the novice, though: I found myself grabbing my compass when he mentioned spidrons, and attacking the problem of trisecting the angle using origami.

In short, Numberland is an excellent place to take a jaunt; if you’re not a mathematician, there’s plenty here to entertain and intrigue you, and if you are… the same thing holds.

Also, the ending is a lot neater than Carroll’s “she woke up and it was all a dream” nonsense.


Colin is a Weymouth maths tutor, author of several Maths For Dummies books and A-level maths guides. He started Flying Colours Maths in 2008. He lives with an espresso pot and nothing to prove.


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