Thinking in Numbers: On Life, Love, Meaning and Math

Thinking in Numbers: on Life, Love, Meaning and Math

It's a cliche, but people often say that if you excel at math, you'll have little talent for language and vice versa. Transplanted Londoner and Parisian resident, Daniel Tammet proves the falsehood of this statement.

In 25 essays that examine life from a mathematical perspective, Tammet enthralls and enlightens the reader on many things especially the beauty of mathematics. Einstein's son Hans Albert said that his father's character was more like an artist than that of a scientist because his highest praise for a theory "was not that it was correct nor that it was exact but that it was beautiful."

Tammet begins this collection with an essay describing his family and numbers theory. In fact, he attributes his first interest in math due to the fact that his neighbors' great interest in his family occurred because there were nine children.  And as he explains it, there were 512 possible ways to spot him or his siblings around town in various combinations.

One essay with a dry-sounding title actually turned out to be my favorite. "In Selves and Statistics" the author proves through several real life cases that you can't count on statistics to predict the timing of anyone's death.  He opens the essay with an intriguing classical legend in which a Greek oracle tells a Scythian warrior that he will be killed by a mus (mouse.) This man hurries to have his houses cleared of mice, and then afterwards dies anyway. From what? An infected arm muscle; in Greek the word for this is mus or mouse.

This essay goes on to recount a notary who gambles by paying a ninety-year old French woman, Jeanne Calment, a monthly figure for life for her house instead of paying the full price outright after she dies. She lives to be 93, 96 and before long, 105, the time when the notary's monthly checks equalled the price of the house.

Alas, the notary believed the odds were very long that this woman would live to be over 100. When in fact, she became the first recorded woman in history to reach, 116 and every year up to 122. Alas, the notary preceded her in death and his widow had to keep paying monthly.  Perhaps, he should have taken into account that she took up fencing at age 85!

What would a person's exploration of math be without a chapter on the number pi? Archimedes knew it as only 3 digits; Newton, nearly 20 centuries later, understood it to be 16, and only in 1949 did computer scientists bring it up to its thousandth digit following the decimal point.

The author also makes many connections with literature. The pi essay he titles "The Admirable Number Pi" the same title as a poem by Wislawa Szymborska. In "Poetry of the Primes" he reveals that the sestina, haiku and tanka all use prime numbers as an intergral part of their form.

Another chapter about the South American, Julio Cortázar, celebrates this author's playful approach to novel development. In the intro to the novel Hopscotch, the author offers variant ways of reading the text.

This wonderful collection of essays is a real joy and you don't have to be a math afficionado to enjoy it. For a more whimsical take on math that answers some mysterious questions, try Graham Tattersall's Geekspeak: how life + mathematics = happiness.

Science    Nonfiction