Bringing the Beauty of Math to Life




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3 September 2010 - For many people, math can be intimidating. But Alex Bellos finds it intriguing.

The journalist has degrees in mathematics and philosophy from Oxford University. After 20 years as a reporter, Bellos decided to combine his profession and his degrees. He traveled around the world - and back in time - to uncover fascinating stories of mathematical achievements and to profile people whose lives are intertwined with numbers.

Alex Bellos discovered that mathematics - which seems so absolute - is not the same everywhere around the globe.

"While two plus two is indeed four all over the world, the approach to math is so, so different," Bellos says. "I came from the U.K. where being good at math is seen as being uncool. This is not the case even in France. The French love their math. It's quite cool to be a mathematician. Mathematicians in France are seen as great intellectuals. And being good at arithmetic in India is almost seen as a badge of national pride. In Japan, which is a culture most different from mine, a million children study the abacus for fun after school. Counting is seen as fun. It's quite fun to be able to calculate and do multiplication very, very quickly."

In his new book, 'Here's Looking at Euclid,' Alex Bellos recounts his math adventures.

Japan was one of the places Bellos visited on his year-long journey. There, he met the creator of the popular Sudoku puzzles and talked about the brain-teasing delights of mathematical games.

In a town near Tokyo, he spent time with a guru of origami, the traditional Japanese art of paper folding. Origami, Bellos says, is one of the hottest areas of mathematical work today.

"It turns out that origami is a brilliant way to understand geometry," he says. "And if you start to think about paper folding, there are lots of things you can't do with the methods that have been taught in schools really since the Greeks. For instance, trisection of an angle. Just using a compass and straight-edge, you cannot construct an angle which is a third of another angle, but you can do that with origami. So it's quite interesting to think that origami in Japan, it may be a cultural thing for children, but now people study origami at the highest level in academia."

While in Japan, Bellos also met a math whiz who is not human.

"I met the world's most numeric chimpanzee, he says. "And it's fascinating just to see that chimpanzees can learn to count."

Bellos recounts his adventures in a new book, "Here's Looking at Euclid." The title is a play on Humphrey Bogart's famous line, "Here's looking at you, kid," from the movie "Casablanca." 

The ancient Greek mathematician Euclid is known as the father of geometry. Bellos also had fun with the title of the UK edition of the book, "Alex's Adventures in Numberland,"  an obvious takeoff on the British classic, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland."

The book is subtitled, "A Surprising Excursion through the Astonishing World of Math."

In it, Bellos talks to two Ukrainian-American brothers who have built the world's biggest supercomputer in their New York apartment. He also went to Reno, Nevada to meet the man who sets the odds for more than half of the world's slot machines. While in Missouri, Bellos met with the president of the Dozenal Society of America.

"Dozenalists are people who believe the decimal system - the system of 10 digits, zero to nine - is not very good, is not sufficient, and suggest we need to add two extra digits," say Bellos. "One might say it's crazy, trying to introduce two new numbers to the number system, but mathematically it makes a perfect sense because multiplication and division become much easier if we count in twelves rather than tens.

In exploring the wonder of math, Bellos discovered numbers are not innate to humans. They were first used only about 5,000 years ago. And he found groups of people today that don't use numbers at all or very few of them.

"In the Amazon, I spoke to a man who has been researching the tribe, the Munduruku, who have numbers up to five and that's it," he says. "Actually, they maybe even have numbers up to four because they have a word for one, for two, for three-ish, for four-ish and then they use the word palm or handful for five."

Bellos also stopped in Germany this summer to report on the bi-annual Mental Calculation World Cup. The 10-year-old competition has several categories: addition, multiplication, square root and calendar calculation. In that last event, contestants are given a number of dates and they have to figure out which days of the week those dates fall on - all in their head. The winner of the 2010 competition is 11 years old.

"Priyanshi Somani from India. She learned to calculate using an abacus," he says. "So when she's calculating, she's moving her hands around in the air in front of her as if there is an abacus there."

Somani later told Bellos she imagined she was using an abacus during the competition. When asked whether she could do the mental calculations without using her hands, Somani told Bellos that she didn't think so.

Bellos embarked on his around-the-world excursion to prove that mathematics is not a dry field of learning. The stories in his book prove that it's surprising and astonishing, as surely as the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle equals the sum of the square of its two other sides.