Every maths teacher in history must have had their own answer to the perennial student question, “But what’s the point of learning this?”. In this reviewer’s case, it was an enthusiastic but ultimately unconvincing explanation of how useful a knowledge of basic trigonometry had proved in putting up a garden shed.
More engaging – and it should be, coming from a professional journalist who blogs about the subject for the Guardian as well as working as the paper’s foreign correspondent – is Alex Bellos’s latest book ‘Alex Through the Looking Glass’, now available in handy paperback format convenient for flinging at any youngster who doubts the relevance of maths to everyday life.
Bellos succeeds in making even daunting topics like calculus engaging by the simple process of talking to people to whom they matter, and finding out why. The result may not quite live up to the publisher’s promise that readers will learn about complex concepts without realising, but pay attention and you’ll gradually get a feel for why they matter, even if the intricacies remain beyond your grasp.
In the small but significant genre of books that promise to take the pain out of maths while entertaining the reader at the same time, this is one that, like the same author’s earlier ‘Alex’s Adventures in Numberland’ stands out. You even get to find out what a survey of more than 30,000 people revealed to be the world’s favourite number, and the possible reasons why.
‘Alex Through the Looking Glass: How Life Reflects Numbers and Numbers Reflect Life’ by Alex Bellos is published in paperback by Bloomsbury, RRP £8.99, ISBN 9781408845721