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The Book of Numbers – Peter J. Bentley ***

It’s good to see someone taking a different approach to adult popular science – and that’s certainly the case here. Peter Bentley’s book is big and glossy, packed with colour images. It has a look of quality media about it. Even the way the chapters are numbered is different – so it grabs the attention straight away.
The text is a fairly straightforward tack through the history of numbers. Each chapter takes on a different aspect of number, but uses that as a springboard to take in a wide range of interesting topics. So, for example, the first chapter after the introduction is nominally about zero, and certainly covers it, but also goes into Roman numerals (and the difficulty of doing arithmetic without zeroes), counting and speaking numbers and the calendar. Although each chapter is hung on a numerical subject, they have a good selection of people to give the content context, pulling us through history at a brisk pace. In fact so strong is the people orientation that the the bibliography is arranged by person, not by topic. Bentley’s writing is always approachable, his style brisk in the main part, though delving into a little more depth in side bars that are sometimes QI-ish in their obscurity.
The acid test of any book that uses novel presentation is whether that novelty gets the subject across better, or whether the medium gets in the way of the message. With The Book of Numbers I’m not convinced the effect is entirely positive. For younger readers the lavish use of pictures, making it feel more Dorling Kindersley than grown up, might go down well, but as an adult, even though some were interesting, I felt a bit patronised. I guess they will appeal to trivia lovers, as they are often quite tangential to the text. For example, one pair of pages dealing with the number 1 has two large illustrations relating to the philosopher’s stone, simply because one alchemist said the stone was ‘one in essence’. Not exactly helpful illustrations in understanding numbers.
As for the chapter numbering scheme, which goes -1, 0, 0.000000001, 1 and proceeds up to (virtual) infinity and then strangely to i, it does nothing more than irritate. It even seems to have confused the author. One chapter is called Small is Beautiful. He comments in the text ‘The title of this chapter is 1 nanometre, as well as being the decimal fraction of 1/1,000,000,000.’ It took me several minutes looking at the chapter title ‘small is beautiful’ at the top of the page trying to work out how this ‘was’ one nanometre, before I looked at the contents page and realized he meant the chapter number.
The other problem with the book is that the light and airy approach it takes sometimes totally wipes out the content. There is a chapter on e, the base of natural logarithms, entitled The Greatest Invention. This was really important we are told. Without e ‘we might have no cars or passenger aeroplanes. We might have no computers. Instead of reading this book, you might have been working in a mill or a coalmine.’ Leaving aside that the reader could be a mill worker or miner and might be a trifle offended by the implications of this, he then goes on to talk about base 10 logarithms and calculus. There is no explanation whatsoever of why e is ‘the greatest invention’ and gives us cars, planes, computers and the ability to stay out of mills.
Overall it’s a great subject, covered in an entertaining way, but a book that only skims the surface and leaves you wanting more. Each chapter really should have had a few suggestions of other books to read more on the topics. Having seen his quick summary of zero, for example, the reader may well want to dig deeper. The bibliography is useless for this. It isn’t further reading of the popular science kind, it’s research material, and because it is organized by person (but in the order they crop up in the book, rather than alphabetically) it’s impractical to use. The book comes across as neither one thing nor another. Not a coffee table book, or a decent read. Not designed for adults or for children. As such, it doesn’t quite hit the mark.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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