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72 of 75 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
I've read a lot of recreational math books and this one is superb. It's as good as those written by the greatest popular mathematics author of them all, Martin Gardner.

In the preface the author states, "I have included a fair bit of historical material...". The first chapter makes it seem that the book will be 90% historical background and information ancillary to math, but within a few chapters that is no longer the case.

Even with subjects that will be familiar to most math devotees, he adds many new interesting tidbits, e.g. if you remove all the terms of the harmonic series that contain the digit 9, the formerly infinite-summing series now sums to just under 23. "Remove all terms including ANY number and the thinned-out harmonic series is convergent." if you remove all the terms that contain the string of digits 314159, the series sums, amazingly!, to a little over 2.3 million.

And mixed in with all the interesting math bits, the author constantly adds interesting asides; Peter Roget of thesaurus fame invented the slide rule log-log scale, which enabled the calculation of square roots and fractional powers like 3^2.5.

There are five pages about sudoku puzzles. They discuss the puzzle's background and also its math; the minimum number of clues needed to produce a puzzle with a unique solution seems to be 17, because although a man named Gordon Royle has collected over 50,000 17-clue puzzles, there has never been a 16-clue puzzle and Royle has a gut feeling that none exist.

I could go on and on describing the many things I found extremely interesting in this book, but I'm too lazy to type them all out. Since I compared this author with the Maestro Martin Garder, let me close with the author's account of his meeting with Gardner: "I found his home in an assisted-living center next to a fast food joint... Gardner opened the door and invited me in. On the wall was a portrait of him made out of dominoes, a large photograph of Einstein and an Escher original... Gardner's preferred subject is magic... At first I had felt a little let down that Gardner was not a mathemetician, but as I left the assisted-living center it struck me that it was brilliantly in the spirit of recreational math that the man who now personifies it was only ever an enthusiastic amateur."

Alex Bellows, your great book earns you the right to be favorably compared to Gardner. May you be as prolific as Martin and keep amazing me for decades to come.
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39 of 41 people found the following review helpful
on June 22, 2010
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
I read a condensed article that turned out to be the first chapter of this book - a book that has opened my eyes to the pure wonders and joys of mathematics. It would be easy to use over-the-top superlatives in describing my reaction not only to the book as a whole, but to each chapter. In this case, though, they would be deserved.

The writing and arrangement of the material is masterful - each chapter could stand alone as an essay of the first degree, and stories of travel, interviews, and history are seamlessly woven with surprising revelations about mathematics and humanity. In particular, the chapter on zero should be taught early and often, and the concepts used to illustrate infinity (and the different levels of infinity) made me gape in awe and fear. Sublime.

The one complaint (and a minor one) I have is the way it appeared on my Kindle. Granted, I don't own the large-screen version, but for a text that relies so heavily on numbers, formulae, and specialized symbols, the paragraphs often appeared distorted or cut off. Again, this is my only hang up regarding what is otherwise a classic.

Future reviews may say it, so I'd like to be the first: this book re-introduced me to mathematics and showed me the beauty of what is often a daunting subject. Would that more math teachers at all levels were able to communicate in the way Alex Bellos does. Well done!
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on August 6, 2010
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I heard the author being interviewed on national public radio and was intrigued by the title. My daughter is a math professor and my husband is an aeronautical engineer, but my knowledge of math is limited. I thought this book would be a fun way to learn some interesting facts about math and it didn't disappoint. For a person who is mathematically inclined, parts of it might be more easily understood and appreciated, but on a simpler level the book is also quite enjoyable. I would recommend it highly.
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22 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on July 23, 2010
Format: Hardcover
This is a book in which just about everyone should find something of interest, mainly because the author's topics are so wide-ranging. In the first chapters, he discusses how the brain works when solving mathematical problems. He then moves on to how primitive societies started counting and how mathematical concepts evolved. In subsequent chapters, the reader is treated to discussions on a variety of topics including: geometry, origami, number games (e.g., Sudoku), number theory, logarithms, devices used for calculating (abacus, slide rule, etc.), graphing, infinities, the golden mean, pi, probability (especially as applied to gambling), and statistics. In each case, the reader is introduced to some history, various related anecdotes as well as key people (some of whom the author has interviewed) who are currently involved in some of these topics. The author notes that the chapters can be read in any order, but suggests that the usual progression may be best.

Naturally, in a book that is so sweeping in its topics, a given reader may enjoy some chapters more than others; that certainly was my case. However, throughout, the writing style is lively, friendly, accessible, authoritative and quite engaging (depending, of course, on the reader's topics of preference).

I do believe that this book has something for everyone. Those who are math phobic may find clues as to why they are that way, i.e., how their brains may work when they are confronted with a math problem; maths buffs may find fascinating historical information as well current developments in some fields of mathematics that are less known to them. Gamblers may find information that could improve their odds at winning at certain games, or they could learn why they may lose more than they win. Those simply interested in math for its own sake will find plenty here to explore and enjoy.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on August 8, 2010
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
This is a fun book to read. I am a math teacher and plan on using some of this information in my math classes. Would definitely recommend this book to other teachers.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on September 5, 2010
Format: Hardcover
The author provides a cursory look at a wide range of interesting mathematical topics without using too much math. The excursions were very enlightening but I felt that they did go quite deep enough. For example, he mentioned that the Greeks were unable to find the cube root of a number using geometry but an Italian women in the early 1900's was able to do it folding paper. I found this fascinating, but the author doesn't show how she did it. As I read the book I was constantly looking for deeper explanations of the topics he discussed. The author did a great job of making these mathematical nuggets interesting but didn't have the space left over in the book to completely explain them. I found the book interesting and inspirational, and I feel that because it made me want to learn more about the topics it was a good book.

Among the topics I found particularly interesting were:

Flash Anzan: using the mental image of an abacus for great speed

Base 12: why base 12 might be better than base 10

Vedic Math: a different and faster way to multiply numbers

Origami used to solve geometric problems

Pi and the historical quest for more digits

The Pythagorean Theorem and it's many proofs

When it's OK to try to buy one of every lottery ticket
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on March 30, 2011
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Surprising, indeed! This book (and my puchase of it) is proof that a great title can sell a book. I'd never heard of the author. I'm not particularly interested in math, and have certainly never intentionally read over 300 pages about it. A month ago it would have been difficult for me to conceive of something so seemingly dull as a book about math.

But I loved this book!

Part of the appeal of the book is its author. I am convinced that Alex Bellos could make anything interesting. He is a gifted writer, who just happens also to be a gifted mathematician; the perfect left/right-brained combination to make something like this work.

The book is ordered into twelve chapters (numbered 0-11; Chapter Zero is, fittingly, about the concept of zero and how it's invention changed the world). Each chapter can be read individually, which, as Bellos says, means you can skip any chapters that you find boring... but I can pretty much guarantee that won't happen. For a book about numbers, the content is largely narrative, as opposed to being arranged in lists, tables, and other mathematical ways. The author uses his skills as a journalist to track down some remarkable people from all parts of the world, and engages readers in their fascinating stories.

The "World of Math" truly is astonishing. From ancient philosophy and counting monkeys to sudoku puzzles and how to beat the odds in the casino, my mind was consistently blown on every page (but in a good way!) If I start listing individual facts that amazed me, I wouldn't be able to stop, so you're going to just have to read this book for yourself.

You don't have to know advanced math to enjoy this book. Honestly, you probably don't need to know much at all about math, or be particularly good at it. Bellos never assumes too much about his audience. You merely need to love a good story, and be prepared to be thoroughly entertained.

P.S. -- This book has opened my eyes to an entire genre that I never knew existed: "Recreational Math Books". I'll definitely be returning to this well!
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on August 22, 2010
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
There isn't a math gene in my body, but I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I intially got it from the library to see if it would be a good birthday present for my daughter-in-law and was rather fascinated myself. Needless to say, I ordered it for her birthday.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on July 14, 2010
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I have been teaching mathematics for many decades now and am always interested in new material for my high school AND college classes. I must admit, this book was originally purchased because of the wonderful (punny) title ... However, once I sat down to read the first chapter, I was hooked. Besides current research on how children learn numbers, there are stories about pi, phi, fractals, and other topics from the author's unique point of view. This is one mathematics book that will draw the reader in...becoming more and more facsinating as the chapters enfold. An appreciated armchair journey. Enjoy!
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on October 15, 2010
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I highly recommend this book for anyone looking for a fun foray into recreational mathematics. However, I do have to agree with other comments that the formatting really needs to be fixed. Superscript and Subscript just don't render, which results in formulas being listed like:

a2
+
b2
=
c2

Because the formulas are never very complex, you can follow along provided you know what math formulas are supposed to look like, but I found that this really distracted from the narrative in some areas.

Graphics such as curves, waveforms, etc are rendered truthfully, so it is only a problem with text.

But I still recommend this book, even if you have to muddle through the poor formatting a few times.
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