Наслаждайтесь миллионами электронных книг, аудиокниг, журналов и других видов контента

Только $11.99 в месяц после пробной версии. Можно отменить в любое время.

Here's Looking at Euclid: A Surprising Excursion Through the Astonishing World of Math

Here's Looking at Euclid: A Surprising Excursion Through the Astonishing World of Math

Автор Alex Bellos

Читать отрывок

Here's Looking at Euclid: A Surprising Excursion Through the Astonishing World of Math

Автор Alex Bellos

4/5 (22 оценки)
509 страниц
7 часов
15 июн. 2010 г.


Too often math gets a bad rap, characterized as dry and difficult. But, Alex Bellos says, "math can be inspiring and brilliantly creative. Mathematical thought is one of the great achievements of the human race, and arguably the foundation of all human progress. The world of mathematics is a remarkable place."

Bellos has traveled all around the globe and has plunged into history to uncover fascinating stories of mathematical achievement, from the breakthroughs of Euclid, the greatest mathematician of all time, to the creations of the Zen master of origami, one of the hottest areas of mathematical work today. Taking us into the wilds of the Amazon, he tells the story of a tribe there who can count only to five and reports on the latest findings about the math instinct—including the revelation that ants can actually count how many steps they’ve taken. Journeying to the Bay of Bengal, he interviews a Hindu sage about the brilliant mathematical insights of the Buddha, while in Japan he visits the godfather of Sudoku and introduces the brainteasing delights of mathematical games.

Exploring the mysteries of randomness, he explains why it is impossible for our iPods to truly randomly select songs. In probing the many intrigues of that most beloved of numbers, pi, he visits with two brothers so obsessed with the elusive number that they built a supercomputer in their Manhattan apartment to study it. Throughout, the journey is enhanced with a wealth of intriguing illustrations, such as of the clever puzzles known as tangrams and the crochet creation of an American math professor who suddenly realized one day that she could knit a representation of higher dimensional space that no one had been able to visualize.

Whether writing about how algebra solved Swedish traffic problems, visiting the Mental Calculation World Cup to disclose the secrets of lightning calculation, or exploring the links between pineapples and beautiful teeth, Bellos is a wonderfully engaging guide who never fails to delight even as he edifies. Here’s Looking at Euclid is a rare gem that brings the beauty of math to life.
15 июн. 2010 г.

Об авторе

Alex Bellos has a degree in Mathematics and Philosophy from Oxford University. Curator-in-residence at the Science Museum and the Guardian’s math blogger, he has worked in London and Rio de Janeiro, where he was the paper's unusually numerate foreign correspondent. In 2002 he wrote Futebol, a critically acclaimed book about Brazilian football, and in 2006 he ghostwrote Pelé's autobiography, which was a number one bestseller. Here’s Looking at Euclid was shortlisted for the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize and was a Sunday Times bestseller for more than four months.

Связано с Here's Looking at Euclid

Похожие Книги

Похожие статьи

Предварительный просмотр книги

Here's Looking at Euclid - Alex Bellos







Alex Bellos

A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

1230 Avenue of the Americas

New York, NY 10020


Copyright © 2010 by Alex Bellos

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or

portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address

Free Press Subsidiary Rights Department,

1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.

First Free Press hardcover edition June 2010

FREE PRESS and colophon are trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

For information about special discounts for bulk purchases,

please contact Simon & Schuster Special Sales at

1-866-506-1949 or business@simonandschuster.com.

The Simon & Schuster Speakers Bureau can bring authors

to your live event. For more information or to book an event

contact the Simon & Schuster Speakers Bureau at 1-866-248-3049

or visit our website at www.simonspeakers.com.

Designed by Julie Schroeder

Manufactured in the United States of America

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Bellos, Alex, 1969—

Here’s looking at Euclid : a surprising excursion

through the astonishing world of math /

Alex Bellos.—Free Press hardcover ed.

p. cm.

1. Number concept. 2. Numeracy.

3. Numbers, Rational—Social aspects. I. Title.

QA141.15.B35 2010

513—dc22                                                     2009036815

ISBN 978-1-4165-8825-2

ISBN 978-1-4165-9634-9 (ebook)

To my mother and father



Chapter Zero—A head for numbers

In which the author tries to find out where numbers come from, since they haven’t been around that long. He meets a man who has lived in the jungle and a chimpanzee who has always lived in the city.

Chapter One—The counter culture

In which the author learns about the tyranny of ten, and the revolutionaries plotting its downfall. He goes to an after-school club in Tokyo where the pupils learn to calculate by thinking about beads.

Chapter Two—Behold!

In which the author almost changes his name because the disciple of a Greek cult leader says he must. Instead, he follows the instructions of another Greek thinker, dusts off his compass and folds two business cards into a tetrahedron.

Chapter Three—Something about nothing

In which the author travels to India for an audience with a Hindu seer. He discovers some very slow methods of arithmetic and some very fast ones.

Chapter Four—Life of pi

In which the author is in Germany to witness the world’s fastest mental multiplication. It is a roundabout way to begin telling the story of circles, a transcendental tale that leads him to a New York sofa.

Chapter Five—The x-factor

In which the author explains why numbers are good but letters are better. He visits a man in the English countryside who collects slide rules and hears the tragic tale of their demise. Includes an exposition of logarithms and how to make a superegg.

Chapter Six—Playtime

In which the author is on a mathematical puzzle quest. He investigates the legacy of two Chinese men—one was a dim-witted recluse and the other fell off the earth—and then flies to Oklahoma to meet a magician.

Chapter Seven—Secrets of succession

In which the author is first confronted with the infinite. He encounters an unstoppable snail and a devilish family of numbers.

Chapter Eight—Gold finger

In which the author meets a Londoner with a claw who claims to have discovered the secret of beautiful teeth.

Chapter Nine—Chance is a fine thing

In which the author remembers the dukes of hasard and goes gambling in Reno. He takes a walk through randomness and ends up in an office block in Newport Beach—where, if he looked across the ocean, he might be able to spot a lottery winner on a desert island in the South Pacific.

Chapter Ten—Situation normal

In which the author’s farinaceous overindulgence is an attempt to savor the birth of statistics.

Chapter Eleven—The end of the line

In which the author terminates his journey with potato chips and crochet. He’s looking at Euclid, again, and then at a hotel with an infinite number of rooms that cannot cope with a sudden influx of guests.



Permissions and credits



As a kid I liked math and I liked writing. So when I was a teenager it seemed totally in keeping with both passions to go up to university to study mathematics and philosophy, a joint course with one foot in science and the other in the liberal arts. At university, however, I spent most of my time involved with the student paper. While I was an undergrad I also managed to get some stories published in the British national press, including one, in the London Guardian, about why math was cool. It was the first time I wrote an article about math and the last for almost twenty years.

After graduating, I became a journalist. I felt I was abandoning the world of numbers in order to embrace the world of letters. I worked for an evening paper in Brighton, England, then for several papers in London, and eventually I became a foreign correspondent in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Occasionally my mathematically trained brain was helpful, such as when finding the U.S. state whose area was closest to the most recently deforested swath of Amazon jungle, or when calculating exchange rates during various currency crises. But essentially, it felt very much as if I had left math behind.

Then, a few years ago, I returned home to the U.K. not knowing what I wanted to do next. For a while I sold T-shirts of Brazilian footballers; I started a blog; I toyed with the idea of importing tropical fruit. Nothing worked out. During this process of reassessment, however, I decided to look again at the subject that had consumed me for so much of my youth, and it was there that I found the spark of inspiration that led me to write this book.

Entering the world of math as an adult was very different from entering it as a child, when the requirement to pass exams means that often the really engrossing stuff is passed over. Now I was free to wander down avenues just because they sounded curious and interesting. I learned about ethnomathematics, the study of how different cultures approach math, and about how math has been shaped by religion. I became intrigued by recent work in behavioral psychology and neuroscience that is piecing together exactly why and how the brain thinks of numbers.

I realized I was behaving just like a foreign correspondent on assignment, except that my destination was an abstract one, the world of mathematics.

My journey soon became geographical, since I wanted to experience math in action. So, I flew to India to learn how the country invented zero, one of the greatest intellectual breakthroughs in human history. I booked myself into a megacasino in Reno to see firsthand how probability underlies the gambling industry. And in Japan, I met the world’s most numerate chimpanzee.

As my research progressed, I found myself in the strange position of being both an expert and a nonspecialist at the same time. Relearning school math was like reacquainting myself with old friends, but there were many friends of friends I had never met back then, and there are also a lot of new kids on the block. Before I wrote this book, for example, I was unaware that for hundreds of years there have been campaigns to introduce two new numbers to our ten-number system. I didn’t realize that origami is a serious scientific method. And I had no idea of the theory behind Sudoku (because it hadn’t been invented). I was led to unexpected places, like Leipzig, Germany, and Scottsdale, Arizona, and to unexpected shelves on the library. I spent a memorable day reading a book on the history of rituals surrounding plants, to understand why Pythagoras was a notoriously fussy eater.

The book starts at Chapter Zero, since I wanted to emphasize that the subject discussed here is pre-mathematics. This chapter is about how numbers emerged. By the beginning of Chapter One numbers have become an essential part of human life and we can get down to business. I have kept the technical material to a minimum, but I did not want to forgo all equations and proofs. I wanted readers to have the opportunity to experience some of these works of mathematical art, and to come to appreciate their elegance. I have also written the book, however, so that should you prefer not to follow along with any given equation or proof, you can simply skip ahead to the beginning of the next section. You can also read the chapters in any order you prefer; each chapter is self-contained, meaning that to understand it one does not have to have read the previous chapters. I do hope, though, that you read them from first to last, as they follow a rough chronology of the history of mathematical discovery, and I also do occasionally refer back to points made earlier.

I have included a fair bit of historical material, since math is the history of math. Unlike the humanities, which are in a permanent state of reinvention as new ideas or fashions replace old ones, and unlike applied science, where theories are undergoing continual refinement, mathematics does not age. The theorems of Pythagoras and Euclid are as valid now as they always were—which is why Pythagoras and Euclid are the oldest names we study at school. By age 16, schoolkids have learned almost no math beyond what was already known in the mid-seventeenth century, and likewise by the time they are 18 they have not gone beyond the mid-eighteenth century. (For my degree the most modern math I studied was from the 1920s.)

When writing this book, my motivation was at all times to communicate the excitement and wonder of mathematical discovery. I also wanted to show that mathematicians can be funny. They are the kings of logic, which gives them an extremely discriminating sense of the illogical. Math suffers from a reputation that it is dry and difficult. Often it is. Yet math can also be inspiring, accessible and, above all, brilliantly creative. Abstract mathematical thought is one of the great achievements of the human race, and arguably the foundation of all human progress.

The world of mathematics is a remarkable place. I would recommend a visit.







When I walked into Pierre Pica’s cramped Paris apartment, I was overwhelmed by the stench of mosquito repellent. Pica had just returned from spending five months with a community of Indians in the Amazon rainforest, and he was disinfecting the gifts he had brought back. The walls of his study were decorated with tribal masks, feathered headdresses and woven baskets. Academic books overloaded the shelves. A lone Rubik’s Cube lay unsolved on a ledge.

I asked Pica how the trip had been.

Difficult, he replied.

Pica is a linguist and, perhaps because of this, speaks slowly and carefully, with painstaking attention to individual words. He is in his fifties, but looks boyish—with bright blue eyes, a reddish complexion and soft, disheveled silvery hair. His voice is quiet but his manner intense.

Pica was a student of Noam Chomsky and is now employed by France’s National Centre for Scientific Research. For the last ten years the focus of his work has been the Munduruku, an indigenous group of about 7,000 people in the Brazilian Amazon. The Munduruku are hunter-gatherers who live in small villages spread across an area of rainforest the size of New Jersey. Pica’s interest is the Munduruku language: it has no tenses, no plurals and no words for numbers beyond five.

To undertake his fieldwork, Pica embarks on a journey worthy of the great adventurers. The nearest large airport to the Indians is Santarém, a town 500 miles up the Amazon from the Atlantic Ocean. From there, a 15-hour ferry takes him almost 200 miles along the Tapajós River to Itaituba, a former gold rush town and the last stop to stock up on food and fuel. On his most recent trip Pica hired a jeep in Itaituba and loaded it up with his equipment, which included computers, solar panels, batteries, books and 120 gallons of petrol. Then he set off down the Trans-Amazon Highway, a 1970s folly of nationalistic infrastructure that has deteriorated into a precarious and often impassable muddy track.

Pica’s destination was Jacareacanga, a small settlement a further 200 miles southwest of Itaituba. I asked him how long it took to drive there. Depends, he shrugged. It can take a lifetime. It can take two days.

How long did it take this time, I repeated.

You know, you never know how long it will take because it never takes the same time. It takes between ten and twelve hours during the rainy season. If everything goes well.

Jacareacanga is on the edge of the Munduruku’s demarcated territory. To get inside the area, Pica had to wait for some Indians to arrive so he could negotiate with them to take him there by canoe.

How long did you wait? I enquired.

I waited quite a lot. But again don’t ask me how many days.

So, it was a couple of days? I suggested tentatively.

A few seconds passed as he furrowed his brow. It was about two weeks.

More than a month after he left Paris, Pica was finally approaching his destination. Inevitably, I wanted to know how long it took to get from Jacareacanga to the villages.

But by now Pica was demonstrably impatient with my line of questioning: "Same answer to everything—it depends!"

I stood my ground. How long did it take this time?

He stuttered: I don’t know. I think . . . perhaps . . . two days . . . a day and a night . . .

The more I pushed Pica for facts and figures, the more reluctant he was to provide them. I became exasperated. It was unclear if underlying his responses was French intransigence, academic pedantry or simply a general contrariness. I stopped my line of questioning and we moved on to other subjects. It was only when, a few hours later, we talked about what it was like to come home after so long in the middle of nowhere that he opened up. When I come back from Amazonia I lose sense of time and sense of number, and perhaps sense of space, he said. He forgets appointments. He is disoriented by simple directions. I have extreme difficulty adjusting to Paris again, with its angles and straight lines. Pica’s inability to give me quantitative data was part of his culture shock. He had spent so long with people, the Munduruku, who can barely count that he had lost the ability to describe the world in terms of numbers.

No one knows for certain, but numbers are probably no more than about 10,000 years old. By this I mean a working system of words and symbols for numbers. One theory is that such a practice emerged together with agriculture and trade, as numbers were an indispensable tool for taking stock and making sure you were not ripped off. The Munduruku are only subsistence farmers and money has only recently begun to circulate in their villages, and so they never evolved counting skills. In the case of the indigenous tribes of Papua New Guinea, it has been argued that the appearance of numbers was triggered by elaborate customs of gift exchange. The Amazon, on the other hand, has no such traditions.

Tens of thousands of years ago, well before the arrival of numbers, our ancestors must have had certain sensibilities about amounts. They would have been able to distinguish one mammoth from two mammoths, and to recognize that one night is different from two nights. The intellectual leap from the concrete idea of two things to the invention of a symbol or word for the abstract idea of two, however, would have taken many ages to come about. This occurrence, in fact, is as far as some communities in the Amazon have come. There are tribes whose only number words are one, two and many. The Munduruku, who go all the way up to five, are a relatively sophisticated bunch.

Numbers are so prevalent in our lives that it is hard to imagine how people survive without them. Yet while Pierre Pica stayed with the Munduruku he easily slipped into a numberless existence. He slept in a hammock and he went hunting and ate tapir, armadillo and wild boar. He told the time from the position of the sun. If it rained, he stayed in; if it was sunny, he went out. There was never any need to count.

Still, I thought it odd that numbers larger than five did not crop up at all in Amazonian daily life. I asked Pica how an Indian would say six fish. For example, just say that he or she was preparing a meal for six people and he wanted to make sure everyone had a fish each.

It is impossible, he said. The sentence ‘I want fish for six people’ does not exist.

What if you asked a Munduruku who had six children: How many kids do you have?

Pica gave the same response: He will say ‘I don’t know.’ It is impossible to express.

However, added Pica, the issue was a cultural one. It was not the case that the Munduruku counted his first child, his second, his third, his fourth, his fifth and then scratched his head because he could go no further. For the Munduruku, the whole idea of counting children was ludicrous. The whole idea, in fact, of counting anything was ludicrous.

Why would a Munduruku adult want to count his children? asked Pica. The children are looked after by all the adults in the community, he said, and no one is counting who belongs to whom. He compared the situation to the French expression J’ai une grande famille, or I’m from a big family. When I say that I have a big family I am telling you that I don’t know [how many members it has]. Where does my family stop and where does the others’ family begin? I don’t know. Nobody ever told me that. Similarly, if you asked an adult Munduruku how many children he is responsible for, there is no correct answer. He will answer ‘I don’t know,’ which really is the case.

The Munduruku are not alone in the sweep of history in not counting members of their community. When King David counted his own people he was punished with three days of pestilence and 77,000 deaths. Jews are meant to count Jews only indirectly, which is why in synagogues the way of making sure there are ten men present, a minyan, or sufficient community for prayers, is to say a ten-word prayer pointing at one person per word. Counting people with numbers is considered a way of singling people out, which makes them more vulnerable to malign influences. Ask an Orthodox rabbi to count his kids and you have as much chance of an answer as if you asked a Munduruku.

I once spoke to a Brazilian teacher who had spent a lot of time working in indigenous communities. She said that Indians thought the constant questioning by outsiders of how many children they had was a peculiar compulsion, even though the visitors were simply asking the question to be polite. What is the purpose of counting children? It made the Indians very suspicious, she said.

The first written mention of the Munduruku dates from 1768, when a settler spotted some of them on the bank of a river. A century later, Franciscan missionaries set up a base on Munduruku land, and more contact was made during the rubber boom of the late nineteenth century when rubber tappers penetrated the region. Most Munduruku still live in relative isolation, but like many other Indian groups with a long history of contact, they tend to wear Western clothes like T-shirts and shorts. Inevitably, other features of modern life will eventually enter their world, such as electricity and television. And numbers. In fact, some Munduruku who live at the fringes of their territory have learned Portuguese, the national language of Brazil, and can count in Portuguese. "They can count um, dois, três, up until the hundreds, said Pica. Then you ask them, ‘By the way, how much is five minus three?’" He parodied a Gallic shrug. They have no idea.

In the rainforest Pica conducts his research using laptops powered by solar-charged batteries. Maintaining the hardware is a logistical nightmare, because of the heat and the damp, although sometimes the trickiest challenge is assembling the participants. On one occasion the leader of a village demanded that Pica eat a large red sauba ant in order to gain permission to interview a child. Pica, the ever-diligent researcher, grimaced as he crunched the insect and swallowed it down.

The purpose of studying the mathematical abilities of people who have only the capacity to count on one hand is to discover the nature of our basic numerical intuitions. Pica wants to know what is universal to all humans, and what is shaped by culture. In one of his most fascinating experiments, Pica examined the Indians’ spatial understanding of numbers. How did they visualize numbers spread out on a line? In the modern world, we do this all the time—on tape measures, rulers, graphs and house numbers along a street. Since the Munduruku don’t have numbers, Pica tested them using sets of dots on a screen. Each volunteer was shown an unmarked line on the screen. To the left side of the line was one dot, to the right ten dots. Each volunteer was then shown random sets of between one and ten dots. For each set the subject had to point at where on the line he or she thought the number of dots should be located. Pica moved the cursor to this point and clicked. Through repeated clicks, he could see exactly how the Munduruku spaced numbers between one and ten.

When American adults were given this test, they placed the numbers at equal intervals along the line. They re-created the number line we learn at school, in which adjacent digits are the same distance apart as if measured by a ruler. The Munduruku, however, responded quite differently. They thought that intervals between the numbers started large and became progressively smaller as the numbers increased. For example, the distances between the marks for one dot and two dots, and two dots and three dots, were much larger than the distance between seven and eight dots, or eight and nine dots.

The results were striking. It is generally considered a self-evident truth that numbers are evenly spaced. We are taught this at school and we accept it easily. It is the basis of all measurement and science. Yet the Munduruku do not see the world like this. They visualize magnitudes in a completely different way.

When numbers are spread out evenly on a ruler, the scale is called linear. When numbers get closer as they get larger, the scale is called logarithmic.* It turns out that the logarithmic approach is not exclusive to Amazonian Indians. We are all born conceiving of numbers this way. In 2004, Robert Siegler and Julie Booth at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania presented a similar version of the number line experiment to a group of kindergarten pupils (with an average age of 5.8 years), first graders (6.9) and second graders (7.8). The results showed in slow-motion how familiarity with counting molds our intuitions. The kindergarten pupil, with no formal math education, maps numbers out logarithmically. By the first year at school, when the pupils are being introduced to number words and symbols, the graph is straightening. And by the second year at school, the numbers are at last evenly laid out along the line.

Why do Indians and children think that higher numbers are closer together than lower numbers? There is a simple explanation. In the experiments, the volunteers were presented with a set of dots and asked where this set should be located in relation to a line with one dot on the left and ten dots on the right. (Or, in the children’s case, 100 dots.) Imagine a Munduruku is presented with five dots. He will study them closely and see that five dots are five times bigger than one dot, but ten dots are only twice as big as five dots. The Munduruku and the children seem to be making their decisions about where numbers lie by estimating the ratios between amounts. In considering ratios, it is logical that the distance between five and one is much greater than the distance between ten and five. And if you judge amounts using ratios, you will always produce a logarithmic scale.

It is Pica’s belief that understanding quantities approximately in terms of estimating ratios is a universal human intuition. In fact, humans who do not have numbers—like Indians and young children—have no alternative but to see the world in this way. By contrast, understanding quantities in terms of exact numbers is not a universal intuition; it is a product of culture. The precedence of approximations and ratios over exact numbers, Pica suggests, is due to the fact that ratios are much more important for survival in the wild than the ability to count. Faced with a group of spear-wielding adversaries, we needed to know instantly whether there were more of them than us. When we saw two trees we needed to know instantly which had more fruit hanging from it. In neither case was it necessary to enumerate every enemy or every fruit individually. The crucial thing was to be able to make quick estimates of the relative amounts.

The logarithmic scale is also faithful to the way distances are perceived, which is possibly why it is so intuitive. It takes account of perspective. For example, if we see a tree 100 meters away and another 100 meters behind it, the second 100 meters looks shorter. To a Munduruku, the idea that every 100 meters represents an equal distance is a distortion of how he perceives the environment.

Exact numbers provide us with a linear framework that contradicts our logarithmic intuitions. Indeed, our proficiency with exact numbers means that the logarithmic intuition is overruled in most situations. But it is not eliminated altogether. We live with both a linear and a logarithmic understanding of quantity. For example, our understanding of the passing of time is often logarithmic. I remember the years of my childhood passing a lot more slowly than the years seem to fly by now. Yet, conversely, yesterday seems a lot longer than the whole of last week. Our deep-seated logarithmic instinct surfaces most clearly when it comes to thinking about very large numbers. For example, we can all understand the difference between one and ten. It is unlikely we would confuse one pint of beer and ten pints of beer. Yet what about the difference between a billion gallons of water and ten billion gallons of water? Even though the difference is enormous, we tend to see both quantities as quite similar—as very large amounts of water. Likewise, the terms millionaire and billionaire are thrown around almost as synonyms—as if there is not so much difference between being very rich and being very, very rich. Yet a billionaire is a thousand times richer than a millionaire. The higher numbers are, the closer together they feel.

The fact that Pica temporarily forgot how to use numbers after only a few months in the jungle indicates that our linear understanding of numbers is not as deeply rooted in our brains as our logarithmic one. Our understanding of numbers is surprisingly fragile, and that is why without regular use we lose our ability to manipulate exact numbers and default to our intuitions, judging amounts with approximations and ratios.

Pica said that his and others’ research on our mathematical intuitions may have serious consequences for math education—both in the Amazon and in the developed world. We require understanding of the linear number line to function in modern society—it is the basis of measuring, and facilitates calculations. Yet maybe in our dependence on linearity we have gone too far in stifling our own logarithmic intuitions. Perhaps, said Pica, this is a reason why so many people find math difficult. Perhaps we should pay more attention to judging ratios rather than manipulating exact numbers. Likewise, maybe it would be wrong to teach the Munduruku to count like we do since this may deprive them of the mathematical intuitions or knowledge that are necessary for their own survival.

Interest in the mathematical abilities of those who have no words or symbols for numbers has traditionally focused on animals. One of the best-known research subjects was a trotting horse called Clever Hans. In the early 1900s, crowds gathered regularly in a Berlin courtyard to watch Hans’s owner, Wilhelm von Osten, a retired math instructor, set the horse simple arithmetical sums. Hans answered by stamping the ground with his hoof the correct number of times. His repertoire included addition and subtraction as well as fractions, square roots and factorization. Public fascination and suspicion that the horse’s supposed intelligence was some kind of trick led to an investigation of his abilities by a committee of eminent scientists. They concluded that, jawohl!, Hans really was doing the math.

It took a less eminent but more rigorous psychologist to debunk the equine Einstein. Oscar Pfungst noticed that Hans was reacting to cues in von Osten’s body language. Hans would start stamping his hoof on the ground and stopped only when he could sense a buildup or release of tension in von Osten’s face, indicating the answer had been reached. The horse was sensitive to the tiniest visual signals, such as the leaning of the head, the raising of the eyebrows and even the dilation of the nostrils. Von Osten was not even aware he was making these gestures.

The lesson of Clever Hans was that when teaching animals to count, supreme care must be taken to eliminate involuntary human prompting. For the math education of Ai, a chimpanzee brought to Japan from West Africa in the late 1970s, the chances of human cues were eliminated because she learned using a touch-screen computer.

Ai is now 31 and lives at the Primate Research Institute in Inuyama, a small tourist town in central Japan. Her forehead is high and balding, the hair on her chin is white and she has the dark sunken eyes of ape middle age. She is known there as a student, never a research subject. Every day Ai attends classes where she is given tasks. She turns up at 9 A.M. on the dot after spending the night outdoors with a group of other chimps on a giant tree-like construction of wood, metal and rope. On the day I saw her, she sat with her head close to a computer, tapping sequences of digits on the screen when they appeared. When she completed a task correctly an 8-millimeter cube of apple whizzed down a tube to her right. Ai caught it in her hand and scoffed it instantly. Her mindless gaze, the nonchalant tapping of a flashing, beeping computer and the mundanity of continual reward reminded me of an old lady doing the slots.

When Ai was a child she became a great ape in both senses of the word by becoming the first nonhuman to count with Arabic numerals. (These are the symbols 1, 2, 3, and so on that are used in almost all countries, except, ironically, in parts of the Arab world.) In order for her to do this satisfactorily, Tetsuro Matsuzawa, director of the Primate Research Institute, needed to teach her the two elements that comprise human understanding of number: quantity and order.

Numbers express an amount, and they also express a position. These two concepts are linked but different. For example, when I refer to five carrots I mean that the quantity of carrots in the group is five. Mathematicians call this aspect of number cardinality. On the other hand, when I count from 1 to 20 I am using the convenient feature that numbers can be ordered in succession. I am not referring to twenty objects, I am simply reciting a sequence. Mathematicians call this aspect of number ordinality. At school we are taught notions of cardinality and ordinality together and we slip effortlessly between them. To chimpanzees, however, the interconnection is not obvious at all.

Matsuzawa first taught Ai that one red pencil refers to the symbol 1 and two red pencils to 2. After 1 and 2, Ai learned 3 and then all the other digits up to 9. When shown, say, the number 5 she could tap a square with five objects, and when shown a square with 5 objects she could tap the digit 5. Her education was reward-driven: whenever she got a computer task correct, a tube by the computer dispensed a piece of food.

Once Ai had mastered the cardinality of the digits from 1 to 9, Matsuzawa introduced tasks to teach her how they were ordered. His tests flashed digits up on the screen and Ai had to tap them in ascending order. If the screen showed 4 and 2, she had to touch 2 and then 4 to win her cube of apple. She grasped this pretty quickly. Ai’s competence in both the cardinality and the ordinality tasks meant that Matsuzawa could reasonably say his student had learned to count. The achievement made her a national hero in Japan and a global icon for her species.

Matsuzawa then introduced to Ai the concept of zero. She picked up the cardinality of the symbol 0 easily. Whenever a square appeared on the screen with nothing in it she would tap the digit. Then Matsuzawa wanted to see if she was able to infer an understanding of the ordinality of zero. Ai was shown a random sequence of screens with two digits, just as when she was learning the ordinality of 1 to 9, although now sometimes one of the digits was a 0. Where did she think zero’s place was in the ordering of numbers?

In the first session Ai placed 0 between 6 and 7. In subsequent sessions her positioning of 0 went under 6,

Вы достигли конца предварительного просмотра. Зарегистрируйтесь, чтобы узнать больше!
Страница 1 из 1


Что люди думают о Here's Looking at Euclid

22 оценки / 10 Обзоры
Ваше мнение?
Рейтинг: 0 из 5 звезд

Отзывы читателей

  • (4/5)
    I managed to learn some new things and more detailed facts about a few old things in a fun and engaging way. If you are curious about your world, or into math, check this book out.
  • (5/5)
    Introduction to and explanation of many rather esoteric but common mathematical concepts. discussions about Origami, non-Euclidean geometry and the various types of infinity were particularly enlightening.
  • (4/5)
    A few months before Alex Bellos' Here's Looking at Euclid: A Surprising Excursion through the Astonishing World of Math was published in the United States the book was released in the United Kingdom, with great success, under the title of Alex's Adventures in Numberland: Dispatches from the Wonderful World of Mathematics. Of the two the American title is perhaps the most groan-inducing, which is probably why I prefer it. I'm one of those people who actually like math. It's true, we're out there. Despite that fact, I actually haven't taken a single math course since graduating high school unless you want to count some complicated music theory. So, I was very interested when a copy of Here's Looking at Euclid was offered to me for review.Here's Looking at Euclid has twelve chapters, appropriately numbered from zero to eleven. Each chapter can more or less stand alone although there is an occasional cross-reference. Bellos vaguely follows the history of mathematics as an outline for his book but instead of an in-depth examination he only explores the highlights and interesting stories and people involved. It's somewhat difficult to determine what topics are actually covered in Here's Looking at Euclid by looking at the table of contents and chapter titles but the very useful index helps with that to a large extent. Broadly speaking, the chapters cover ethnomathematics, human cognition, geometry, pi, algebra, recreational mathematics, infinity, the Golden Ratio, randomness, statistics, and current advances in mathematics. However there are any number of other interesting and amusing things mentioned in passing.Bellos makes a point of using practical applications and real life examples while explaining mathematical concepts rather than strictly relying on theory. There are far fewer equations than you might expect to see in a book about math. There are, however, plenty of figures, graphs, and illustrations to accompany the text and aid in explanations. While Bellos does an excellent job of introducing concepts, prior knowledge of basic geometry, algebra, and probability is useful but not necessary. Here's Looking at Euclid is definitely not meant to be a math primer and to be fair readers probably won't pick up the book unless they already have at least a passing interest in mathematics.Here's Looking at Euclid is a very approachable and fun look at the world of mathematics. Bellos' writing is clear and his stories are amusing and interesting. Before becoming a journalist for the Guardian newspaper, he was a graduate of Oxford University in both math and philosophy so he knows something about the subject. It seems fitting that he would write a book about it. While preparing to write Here's Looking at Euclid Bellos traveled to places all over the world to conduct research and interviews including Japan, India, Germany, and the United States, among others. I only have one major complaint about Here's Looking at Euclid and that is that the chapter notes, appendices, and the glossary were all published online instead of being included in the book. I have no idea why this is the case because they really aren't all that long. This was extraordinarily frustrating for me since most of my reading is done away from a computer. However, other than that, I really did enjoy Here's Looking at Euclid. Experiments in Reading
  • (3/5)
    More interesting than the majority of maths books ever written, this contains some really thought provoking stuff for people like me who always resented maths, the sections on numeric bases and differences in cultural approaches particularly. The downside is the authors tendency to linger on certain points. The discussion on number sequences went on well after its point had been made.
  • (5/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    I really enjoyed this book. It is very well written, covers how different cultures use maths and talks about the people who actually do maths for a living. It was nice to read a book about maths with such warmth and without the feeling that my brain was going to pop!

    1 person found this helpful

  • (4/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    Here's Looking at Euclid is a collection of stories about math, from the development of number and counting systems all the way to transfinite numbers and hyperbolic spaces. Alex Bellos does an excellent job of explaining very difficult subjects in simpler terms. He includes many small side-stories that add to the richness of the text. While the illustrations are not numerous, they are key to explaining some topics and are very well executed. Above all, Bellos conveys his enthusiasm for math, which, if one is already inclined to like math, his enthusiasm encourages one to begin reading the many books he lists in the bibliography.While this book is terrific at explaining most topics to the non-mathematician, a few of the explanations do require some background in math to be fully understandable. Overall, this is a wonderful book! (Then again, I love math.)

    1 person found this helpful

  • (4/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    There are many books that popularize mathematics by retelling improbable anecdotes about famous mathematicians or by proving counter-intuitive propositions. Few are as amusing, entertaining, or downright clever as Here’s Looking at Euclid, aptly subtitled "A Surprising Excursion through the Astonishing World of Math." This attention grabbing title caught my eye in Chaucer's Books in Santa Barbara, California. The book consists of a series of not very closely related mathematical topics, lucidly presented. As such, it lends itself to occasional sampling rather than being read straight through. I myself read it a few pages at a time over a period of a month and a half. It contains many interesting anecdotes, such as a chapter on a remarkable chimpanzee who can count up to nine and can identify the appropriate symbol for each of the first nine digits and put them in the correct order. She has significant problems with where the number zero fits in the order, however, even though she seems to know that zero mean no objects. In addition, there are chapters on randomness, interesting sequences or progressions, the decimal expansion of pi, hyperbolic space, and infinity, all of which have surprising properties that Bellos perspicuously explicates. Evaluation: This is a fun, breezy read that you do not need a Ph.D. in math to enjoy.

    1 person found this helpful

  • (4/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    I wasn’t very good at maths at school. I found arithmetic easy, but geometry and algebra just did not click. I work in the computer industry and have developed an easy working relationship with maths at a fairly low level. All this does not mean I dislike math, on the contary, I am fascinated by mathematics and the strange worlds it opens up. I would love to be a whiz at maths.I found Alex Bellos’ book both interesting and frustrating in about equal measure. The book is really a series of connected essays arranged more-or-less chronologically, examining key developments in mathematics and using some of the more exotic byways of the subject to illustrate the underlying concepts. I found most of it easyish to follow and learned a lot about what mathematics is, how it works and how it can be used. I was hooked and have vowed to follow up my interest with at least a little research and hard work.Where I became a little frustrated is when Bellos identifies an ‘interesting mathematical property’ but never clearly shows the significance or underlying structure of it. For example, in the chapter addressing the Fibonacci numbers and the Golden Mean Bellos shows a number of interesting sequences and interrelationships where the Fibonacci sequence is found in various elements of other number sequences. But he never really explains if these are just coincidences or random outcomes from lots of numbers being processed, or if they illustrate some deeper structure. Is it that 1/89 (89 being a Fibonacci number) can be expressed as the sum of a series of decimal fractions that end in the Fibonacci numbers just a bit of razzle-dazzle or is something more fundamental going on?Perhaps having these reservations and asking these questions means that Bellos has hit the mark and entertained well enough to drive some ongoing thought and interest in the subject. Well done!

    1 person found this helpful

  • (3/5)
    There is a difference between a primer and something written for laymen. This book more closely aligns with my interpretation of the former. For people who have no familiarity with mathematical concepts, this book would probably be delightful. For those who are aware of the more famous math intrigues but are amateurs (or, like me, more interested in the history, applications, and explanations than the proofs), this book retreads old, familiar ground. Anyone who watched Numb3rs or – painful though it may be to say it – read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code are probably going to find themselves rather bored by many of the chapters. The section on the Golden Ratio is particularly yawn-inducing; it adds nothing more than the basic information, including its relation to the Fibonacci sequence and its occurrence in nature.

    There were some things that I hadn’t heard about – the musical rendition of Recaman’s Sequence was a particularly pleasing find, and I highly recommend looking it up on YouTube if you read the book but didn’t bother going to check – and a few beloved ones, like Fermat’s Last Theorem, but otherwise it relied on the pop math that is so prevalent as to be commonplace now (See: P versus NP and its increasing ubiquity on TV shows of late).

    If the words Reimann’s Hypothesis, Srinivasa Ramanujan, or gambler’s fallacy ring even a distant bell, you will probably not find anything groundbreaking or new in this book.

    This is not to say that the book is without merit; for those who don’t know anything about math, I imagine this would be a great introduction to the practical, the theoretical, and the just plain fun aspects of mathematical theory. It helps as well that Alex Bellos is a charming writer. In one chapter, he explains with the glee of a child receiving a present a hundred-day experiment in which he charted the weight of baguettes every morning. His descriptions, particularly of some of the more eccentric people in the field, like Gregory and David Chudnovsky, are delightful. And he has a knack for sliding in humor at just the right moment, as when he is discussing the almost mythical lore of pi: “Pi has gone by this name only since 1706, when the Welshman William Jones introduced the symbol π in his book, the snappily titled, A New Introduction to the Mathematics, for the Use of some Friends who have neither Leisure, Convenience, nor, perhaps, Patience, to search into so many different Authors, and turn over so many tedious Volumes, as is unavoidably required to make but tolerable progress in the Mathematics” (111).

    His descriptions of the math are … less charming. He relates his experience meeting Martin Gardner, who explains that it was his own helplessness at anything more difficult than calculus that allowed him to write about it in such a way that even math-dullards could understand; Bellos clearly has no such problems. It is abundantly clear that he is startlingly intelligent, and writes clearly otherwise, but with the restrictions bound to someone who understands something intuitively. I have read other books that explained mathematical problems and theorems in ways that even I – definitely not a math genius – could understand, but the book had numerous instances where Bellos turned to the proofs, apparently assured that this was sufficient to explain. It was not. (Like Martin Gardner, I am similarly hopeless with anything after basic calculus).

    He also has a few snide comments that frankly surprised me, as he confessed his love of writing in the introduction. One such that managed to rankle was this gem: “The propositions of The Elements are true in perpetuity. They do not become less certain or indeed less relevant with time (which is why Euclid is still taught at schools and why Greek playwrights, poets and historians are not)” (57).

    A. They are, and B. If they weren’t, that would be indicative of a problem, not an indication of their lack of relevance in some kind of academic Darwinism. Or, if one prefers: 1. They are, and 2. If they weren’t… Seriously though, I don't know of anyone who escaped high school without having read at least The Odyssey and probably Oedipus Rex as well. I want to believe that this is sarcasm, but he sounds so sincere in this that I have a hard time convincing myself.

    It may sound as if I’m nitpicking, and I am, because truly, this book wasn’t bad. As a primer, it is well-written, with an endearing narrator, and just enough fun to make even the more boring math palatable. Thankfully, most of the math isn’t at all in need of spicing up – the discussion of Cantor’s explanation of the concept of larger/smaller infinities is quietly brilliant, and a treat to read in and of itself, and Bellos’s obvious excitement at its implications make it hard not to be equally swept up by the awesomeness of it all.
  • (5/5)
    I heard about this book while listening to NPR (1 geek point). My ears always prick up when I hear about a math book (1 geek point). This book sounded particularly interesting since it was written by a guy whose previous book is about football (soccer in the states) (-1 geek point for knowing the is a difference between soccer and football). In addition the author is journalist so on my personal author rating system I usually find books written by journalist to be 10-15% better than book written by none journalists (1 geek point for having a personal author rating system). On my next trip to the book store I bought the book. I was please to discover the author had started with chapter 0, in addition it is about a world without numbers. (1 geek point for not thinking that is just a gimmick.)I read the book in three or four sittings, mildly disappointed there weren’t homework assignments (10 geek points for hoping for homework in a non-fiction book). The chapters are about 22 pages, about the length of a good newspaper column (see how that journalist as author rating system works out). There are interesting personal insights, (who knew weighing baggets was so fun.), great globetrotting romps tracing mathematical developments (sort of Jame Brukes’ “Connections” meets Keith Delvin’s Morning Edition guest spots, ( 20 geek points for getting that reference)) and great multi-cultural view points (from 1, 2, many counting to crocheting hyperbolic surfaces).The one thing missing was an explanation of the current Millennium Prize Problems. Maybe that is a planned sequel. So if you are one of those sick twisted souls who love math but weren’t able to following that love into full time profession (lucky bastards) you’ll like this book. If you are a Brazilian football fan go for it’s a quick book to read and you’ll learn stuff about gambling. (total of 33 geek points, i.e. not technical enough for hardcore, sort of geek beach reading. (yeah like geeks ever go to the beach.))