A Brief Foray into the World of Numbers

51-dSzPWJ7L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX278_SY278_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_History is one of those subjects that a proper education simply ruins. It’s taught like accounting – a list of dates, a list of people, a list of events. A spreadsheet for art, a spreadsheet for ideas, and a spreadsheet for society. Stories are stripped of so much nuance and subtlety that the facts, while factual, still manage to be completely false. I suppose this is what sucks about so much education. In our mad dash to get to the right answer, we miss all the fun.

The best way to understand history always involves a lens. Whether it’s a biography, an issue, or field of study. Standard history  tends to revert to a storyline of whoever won. So it goes.  Much to my surprise, one of the best history books I have read to date is really a book about mathematics. Another subject completely stripped of its humor when you learn it in school. Here’s Looking at Euclid is an absolutely charming look at humans and our relationship to numbers. The array of characters are delightful, including:

  • Pierre Pica, a French anthropologist who spends several weeks with the Matuhundra tribe in the Amazon, after which he loses his ability to count.
  • Kazuo Haga an entomologist and origami rebel.
  • David Hilbert, the mathematician that ruined the fun for everyone when he “proved” hyperbolic surfaces didn’t exist because there was no formula to describe them. Until 100 some years later when Diane crocheted these very surfaces, proving that while math can’t really get its head around them (yet), they most certainly do exist.

Alex Bellos is a delightful storyteller because he is so obviously delighted by the story he’s telling. He makes jokes like this, “Persistence is sort of like a sausage machine that produces only 11 very curious sausages.” I’ll admit, there were swaths of the books where I was in over my head, where the author delved into formulas and proofs and I lost my patience, but even those duller sections (for me) were made rewarding with his oddly hilarious summaries.

For large parts of the book I felt a sense of awe. That for thousands of years humans have been so captivated by numbers. Often misunderstanding them and misusing them, frequently falling in love with them, and occasionally even worshiping them.  It’s incredible to be reminded that ideas like probability and statistical significance were world-changing discoveries. Ideas that changed history. The scary thing is that if we forget that these things were was once unknown then we can forget why it’s so important for it to be known. Understanding numbers has pulled humanity forward. Dragging us out of the darkness of human ignorance and into a world abundant with knowledge and information.