Review of "The Grapes of Math" by Alex Bellos

A delicious feast of mathematical, geometrical and historical dishes.

"The Grapes of Math: How Life Reflects Numbers and Numbers Reflect Life" by Alex Bellos @alexbellos, ISBN 978-1451640090

What a wonderful book about mathematics, geometry and all the ways we depend on the mathematical insight! The author can link during a course of a single page ancient Greece (unsurprisingly), middle ages, industrial age and the present day. Every concept is explained clearly and lucidly, the best scientific writing of the modern day. The mathematics is clearly explained but not overwhelming, the everyday significance of each theory is profound, and the writing is superb.

An interesting fact, one often does not see in other popular science books - a few mathematical theorems are stated, with a proof given at the end of the book. I felt like the author really did his homework instead of leaving it to the reader. It shows that the author is a math student, and not a professor (this is not a dig at the author, but a praise).

The book starts by showing how we feel about specific numbers. Everyone has a favorite number, and there is a wealth of statistics that author cites showing which numbers we prefer. Not only we prefer certain numbers, we even ascribe certain human traits to them: one is masculine, strong and brave. Two is cautious and wise, etc.

The book continues in this fashion, showing strong connections between the mathematics and society it describes. There were many mathematical and historical anecdotes that I knew only superficially and this book described vividly. I enjoyed reading about the following 3 topics:

  • Power laws (which were discovered in various disciplines as Benford's, Pareto's, Zipf's laws), and that we nowadays call "80/20 rule".
  • The extremely prolific mathematical textbook author Nicolas Bourbaki and his quest for rigorous textbooks.
  • The Game of Life and the search for self-replicating structures.

I would greatly recommend this book to any high school or college student, especially as part of a mathematically-themed book club. I would also recommend it to anyone even remotely interested in science or technology. A pleasurable and useful book.