Alan Gill Reviews Alex Through the Looking-Glass: How Life Reflects Numbers and Numbers Reflect Life

Review by Alan Gill

Book’s Homepage: favouritenumber.net
Author’s Homepage: http://alexbellos.com

Numbers are great.

Everyone loves them. We’ve got favourite ones, lucky ones and others that we consider taboo. Numbers are everywhere we look and are involved in almost everything do.

Alex Bellos doesn’t just love numbers, he also loves mathematics. After his first book, Alex’s Adventures in Numberland, Bellos is back with the logical sequel, Alex Through the Looking Glass.

Billed as a book that “delves deep into the amazing maths that lies beneath the surface of our world”, Bellos pretty much delivers. Ranging from number frequencies and computer programming to trigonometry and quadratic equations, Alex Through the Looking Glass uncovers interesting examples of their utility and the engaging characters that contributed to the field’s development.

The journey starts off well, exploring what humans do to numbers: pick favourites and ascribe personalities. Bellos surveyed over 30,000 people to find their favourite number and why they chose them, seemingly creating order from what most would predict to be chaos. These numeric trends continue in the following chapter, introducing a curious property of datasets that aid fraud investigators and geologists to find anomalies that help them do their work. If these two chapters don’t get you excited about numbers, nothing will.

Things begin to get a little tricky after that, though. Chapters about trigonometry, the importance of cones to geometry, properties of circles and the birth of calculus allow Bellos to indulge in his passion for mathematics, but at times it is easy to be left behind by his exuberant enthusiasm. There are still intriguing personalities to meet and various tidbits and facts to keep you keen, but the nitty gritty of mathematical equations can become a tad difficult to wade through.

One example is a section on Euler’s Rule, a mathematical relationship that joins trigonometry and complex numbers in one neat little package. While the book claims each chapter is standalone, this explanation is the culmination of several concepts spanning multiple chapters and highlights how passionate Bellos is about maths. The different concepts that come together can be difficult to navigate, and at times appear somewhat messy for what is really quite a tidy formula. Readers may well give up before the true beauty of this concept is revealed, which would be an absolute shame because it’s quite an amazing mathematical relationship.

Alex Through the Looking Glass is an approachable read and Bellos is a master at conveying complex mathematical concepts in simple terms. He allows his readers the opportunity to explore proofs and puzzles further in the appendix, though at times he comes across a touch patronising, saying that certain proofs are too complex to explain. That may well be the case – in some instances he qualifies his comments by mentioning it is only covered in universities – though in a book that is meant to make maths accessible and enjoyable, it jars a little being told you won’t understand something.

Mathematics underpin our entire society, yet many rejoice in remaining ignorant about how it works. Sure, maths can be hard, but Bellos does a remarkable job of keeping it simple and understandable. While it can be slow in parts, Alex Through the Looking Glass is a great read and will have you wanting to know more.

Alan Gill

Alan Gill is a science communicator in Melbourne, Australia. A lover of science but not a particularly diligent scientist, Alan found his passion for talking and writing about research early on, completing a BSc (Science Communication) at the University of Western Australia and honing his skills at Scitech in Perth. Alan currently lives in Melbourne and works as a science communicator at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, filling his spare time by sporadically tending to his blog, training for a university exercise study and loudly encouraging his AFL football team.

Alan’s Blog:  http://www.sciencetraveller.com