Skip to main content

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.

Paperback:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lucy Jane Santos - Four Way Interview

Lucy Jane Santos is an expert in the history of 20th century leisure, health and beauty, with a particular interest in (some might say obsession with) the cultural history of radioactivity. Writes & talks (a lot) about cocktails and radium. Her debut book Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium was published by Icon Books in July 2020.

Why science?

I have always been fascinated by the idea of science especially our daily interactions with and understandings of science – especially in a beauty context. I could spend hours pondering the labels of things on my bathroom shelf. What is 4-t-butylcyclohexanol (as a random example)? Do I really understand what I am putting on my face and spending my money on? Would it change my purchase habits if I did?  

Why this book?

This book came from an accidental discovery – that there was a product called Tho Radia which contained radium and thorium. I found out about it because I actually bought a pot of it – along with a big batch of other produc…

Rewilding: Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe ****

Those who are enthusiastic about saving the environment often have a mixed relationship with science. They might for example, support organic farming or oppose nuclear power, despite organics having no nutritional benefit and requiring far more land to be used to raise the same amount of crops, while nuclear is a green energy source that should be seen as an essential support to renewables. This same confusion can extend to the concept of rewilding, which is one reason that the subtitle of this book uses the word 'radical'.

As Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe make clear, though, radical change is what is required if we are to encourage ecological recovery. To begin with, we need to provide environments for nature that take in the big picture - thinking not just of individual nature reserves but, for example, of corridors that link areas allowing safe species migration. And we also need to move away from an arbitrary approach to restricting to 'native' species, as sometimes…

Is Einstein Still Right? - Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes ***

If there's one thing that gets a touch tedious in science reporting it's the news headlines that some new observation or experiment 'proves Einstein right' - as if we're still not sure about relativity. At first glance that's what this book does too, but in reality Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes are celebrating the effectiveness of the general theory of relativity, while being conscious that there may still be situations where, for whatever reason, the general theory is not sufficient.

It's a genuinely interesting book - what Will and Yunes do is take experiments that are probably familiar to the regular popular science reader already and expand on the simplified view of them we are usually given. So, for example, one of the first things they mention is the tower experiments to show the effect of gravitational red shift. I was aware of these experiments, but what we get here goes beyond the basics of the conceptual experiment to deal with the realities of d…