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:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Einstein's Greatest Mistake - David Bodanis ****

Books on Einstein and his work are not exactly thin on the ground. There's even been more than one book before with a title centring on Einstein's mistake or mistakes. So to make a new title worthwhile it has do something different - and David Bodanis certainly achieves this with Einstein's Greatest Mistake. If I'm honest, the book isn't the greatest on the science or the history - but what it does superbly is tell a story. The question we have to answer is why that justifies considering this to be a good book.
I would compare Einstein's Greatest Mistake with the movie Lincoln -  it is, in effect, a biopic in book form with all the glory and flaws that can bring. Compared with a good biography, a biopic will distort the truth and emphasise parts of the story that aren't significant because they make for a good screen scene. But I would much rather someone watched the movie than never found out anything about Lincoln - and similarly I'd much rather someon…

Four Way Interview - Tom Cabot

Tom Cabot is a London-based book editor and designer with a background in experimental psychology, natural science and graphic design. He founded the London-based packaging company, Ketchup, and has produced and illustrated many books for the British Film Institute, Penguin and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tom has held a lifelong passion to explain science graphically and inclusively ... ever since being blown away by Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten at an early age. His first book is Eureka, an infographic guide to science.

Why infographics?
For me infographics provided a way to present heavy-lifting science in an alluring and playful, but ultimately illuminating, way. And I love visualising data and making it as attractive as the ideas are.  The novelty of the presentation hopefully gets the reader to look afresh. I love the idea of luring in readers who might normally be put off by drier, more monotone science – people who left science behind at 16. I wanted the boo…

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First t…