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33 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on March 3, 1999
The late Issac Asimov's thoughts on various numbers, series and numerically interesting subjects, including Euler's "e," the origin of the "Arabic numerals" and lots about various large numbers, including Googols and the transfinite numbers.
The several chapters are a collection of articles he wrote mostly in the 1960's. Asimov introduces a version of the series he calls Asimov's Series. One would like to call him "Sir Issac Asimov."
The book provides numerous factoids, some of which have significant historical significance. There's no bibliography, but he mentions some references.
He reveals some history of the "so called Arabic" numeral system, including the invention of "zero."
His insights into Calendars were very interesting to this reviewer. He vaguely endorsed a famous proposal for a symetric "World Calendar."
But as he often was in many areas, Asimov refrained from any forwarding any major controversial proposals.
The book is entertaining. A simple calculator or even better a graphing calculator is a handy accessory. The copy I was reading was from the Los Angeles Public Library, and though it has be long out of print, it was popular enough to be possibly be stolen from this reader's possession.
It would be a good book for young Asimov fans, or even a good intro to his many books for a slightly mathematically inclined youngster (at heart).
Much of the information is ABOUT mathematics rather than deeply mathematical (or arithmetic) per se.
No math background beyond algebra is needed.
It's a swell book, and I want a copy!
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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on August 8, 2000
Every time I read this book (I've read it at least 4 times) I get to a chapter that I've read before and I say, "I don't think I'll read this chapter, I'll just skip it and go on to the next one..." But then I end up reading that chapter and I will think to myself, "That chapter was AWESOME! Why would I ever think of skipping it?" I love this book, I find it hard to put down. Asimov has a way of explaining mathematical concepts in a very compelling way. I'm sad that the book is out of print - I can't find the copy that I read back in high school - sure would love to pick up another copy. As mentioned else where this book is a compilation of articles written by Asimov, mostly in the 60's.
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on May 29, 2008
Let us return to those dark and thrilling days of yesteryear, the 1960s. I was in high school at that time. We were still using slide rules for mathematical calculations in physics. (You had to keep their edges lubricated with powdered graphite so that they would slip smoothly. Does anybody remember _those_ days?) There was no internet and no Googol website. But I knew what a googol was, and what a googolplex was, and even what Skewes numbers were. I had read an article by Isaac Asimov in the August 1963 issue of _Fantasy and Science Fiction_ called "T-Formation" that dealt with Big Numbers of various kinds.

From other math related articles by Asimov in _F&SF_, I understood why the square root of minus one wasn't _really_ imaginary. I had a rough idea of how the value of pi had been calculated over the years. And I had something of an understanding of why you couldn't square a circle with a straightedge and compass.

There were other things that I didn't grasp so easily. Why was infinity not really a number? And how could you have more than one infinities? My understanding of factorials was very fuzzy. And some mathematicians-- Gottfried Leibnitz, Leonardo Fibonacci, Georg Cantor, Leonard Euler, and Karl Friedrich Gauss-- I knew almost nothing about. (Though the names of Euclid, Archimedes, Pythagorus, and Newton were familiar.)

The articles by Asimov were no substitute for the daily drill in math that my teachers imposed upon me. But they sharpened my thinking about a few concepts, and they gave me my first glimmering of a notion that maybe mathematics was something more than what was presented to us in textbooks. The formulas that we were supposed to memorize didn't represent concepts that sprang full-blown out of the brow of Zeus. They were ideas that _evolved_, with lots of trial and error and refinement. I wasn't ready to admit that math was fun, but I was willing to concede that at times it could be interesting. In short, Asimov's articles gave me an education.

Here are seventeen mathematical essays from _F&SF_ published between September 1959 and June 1966. They are grouped into seven parts: Numbers and Counting (five essays), Numbers and Mathematics (three essays), Numbers and Measurement (two essays), Numbers and the Calendar (two essays), Numbers and Biology (one essay), Numbers and Astronomy (one essay), and Numbers and Earth (three essays). "T-Formation" is here, and most of the others that made an impression on me back then: "The Imaginary That Isn't," "A Piece of Pi," "Tools of the Trade," "Varieties of the Infinite," and "Exclamation Point!" Asimov elsewhere states that this last piece, on factorials, is his all-time favorite math essay.

Perhaps the most amusing article in the book is "Forget It!" It is a review of a 1797 math textbook, explaining why most of its contents are rightfully left out of modern math textbooks. In a related vein, "Nothing Counts" compares the Roman and the Arabic Number systems. And "Pre-Fixing It Up" is an introduction to the metric system. Asimov correctly argues that it is superior in every way to the English system. I remember that at one time I took several education courses on teaching metrics. It was to be the coming thing. But the metric revolution in the United States fizzled out in favor of tradition. Other countries have adopted it, but we still lag behind.

Asimov is fond of writing articles that play with comparisons and measurements, and there are several of these articles here: "That's About the Size of It" (on the relative sizes of animals), "Water, Water, Everywhere" (on the comparative sizes of bodies of water around the world), "Up and Down the Earth" (on geographic heights and depths and bulges), and "The Isles of Earth" (on the different sizes of islands). Herman Melville was known to sneer at science essays loaded with tables and numbers. I found these numerical exercises to be anything but dry.

The two essays on the calendar deal with figures like Julius Ceasar, Charlemagne, Napolean Bonaparte, and George Washington-- figures better known to high school students than many mathematicians. What is the significance of Washington and the calendar? It lies in the answer to this question: When was George Washington's birthday? Read Asimov for greater detail.

The book has one feature that was not in the original magazine columns. It has illustrated sidebars with commentary-- sometimes on historical personages, sometimes on animals, oceans, volcanoes, old mathematical documents. In each case, they give the reader a bit more in the way of informational trivia than would be obtained by the text alone. Today, my knowledge and appreciation of mathematics is much greater than it used to be. But I still return to the essays in this book. I often find that there are details in the Good Doctor's articles that I missed on the first couple of readings. Get this book for yourself. If you are a parent, get a copy for your children. Take the time to go over several chapters with them. Then let them read the rest on their own.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on April 23, 2011
We borrowed this book from the library several times, but my son liked the book so much we had to buy him a copy. I am not fond of math myself, but he really likes it. Some of the things he likes about it are the fun ways to calculate faster, and he liked the description of the square root of -1 as an imaginary number. He really understood the concept of imaginary numbers after reading that. It has a lot of things that get his mind thinking which is fun and different from the practice, practice of math at school.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on October 25, 2009
Why schools these day's require dry textbooks that cost $$$ instead of this wonderful story of numbers is beyond me. I think you would have triple the number of math lovers if they were all introduced to Isaac Asimov's world at an early age. You will gain a greater appreciation of numbers and the people behind the ideas of mathematic's as you glide through this book. I doubt you will want to put it down, and if you do, your mind will still be puzzling the ideas and concepts that Asimov explains.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on September 29, 2006
This is the most concise, humourous book on the history of numbers you will read. Asimov is at his peak with this one. The last couple of chapters lost my interest, but the rest is well worth the money. Written for the layman, but enough fuel for the enthusiast.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on June 22, 2007

This is a funny, interesting, eye-opening, highly readable book. Who would have thought that a book about numbers could be so fascinating!

Are ya curious about the Fibonacci sequence?
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on October 23, 2013
I don't know why this is out of print--it should be part of math classes everywhere.

This group of essays entertains as it informs.
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on January 11, 2014
Cool book to have by Asimov the master. The book is targeted at laymen so it isn't so much a math book as it is an introduction to mathematical concepts. That being said, it has fantastic explanations of things like imaginary numbers and other unintuitive concepts which I think my son will enjoy when he grows up. I'm very glad I have it.
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VINE VOICEon November 16, 2013
This collection of essays is so accessible and mind-expanding. Perfect for people who "think" that they don't like math. The style is engaging, and the writing so well-done. Love me some Asimov.
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