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Thinking in Numbers, By Daniel Tammet
Monday 17 September 2012
Daniel Tammet is an autistic savant with an incredible gift for maths. His previous two books became international bestsellers.
He is also known as the man who, in a public recital at Oxford University, quoted the number pi to 22,514 decimal places.
Tammet's third book comprises essays loosely linked to maths. If you grimace at the m-word, reconsider. These essays have no resemblance to maths as taught in my state school. They are more art than science, steeped in classical history and charming anecdote.
As fluid with words as with numbers, his essays are artfully constructed: intriguing openings to entice us; interesting snippets of history; accessible but unpatronising tones; neat endings. His relationship with digits is synaesthetic: he ascribes characteristics to them more commonly associated with people.
The essays are short enough to keep interest stimulated, the topics varied. One describes his childhood discovery that if he halved a distance, he could do so forever without reaching zero. In another, he discusses semantics, the words used for numbers in different languages: in some tribes, precise large numbers don't exist as they are not required.
There are forays into literature. Shakespeare's maths lessons possibly involved the first algebra book in English, published in 1543. Tammet shows how mathematical proofs mirrored the use of reasoning in law. We learn how a nine-year-old coined the term for the number 1 followed by 100 zeros – "googol", inspiration for the ubiquitous search engine's monicker. He also surveys the likelihood of life on other planets as viewed by mathematicians and astronomers.
Occasionally there is supposition, inevitably weaker than facts. Purists may hanker for more meaty fare, such as that of the brilliant Oxford mathematician Marcus du Sautoy on the BBC. But for those to whom maths is shark-infested water, this delightful volume shows the safety and comfort offered by numbers.
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