Review of the book – The Story of Numbers by John McLeish. Suggested read.
Have you ever wondered what a number is ? It is not some sort of a philosophical question. What exactly is a number – something that lets us count ? Yes, that definitely it is. But are they real entities (no Mathematical pun intended!) ? Are they some sort of abstract entities which are completely out of the reach of human thought, with our counting merely a manifestation of this higher thought ? Or are they merely contrivances for making trade and barter easy? Well, this post is not about discussing what numbers are or what we think they are, rather it is about a book by the same name by John McLeish.
So, is the book about numbers, or as the title suggests about how Mathematics has shaped civilization. I’m certain that it is not about the latter. The book doesn’t deal with how Mathematical discoveries shaped civilization or the decisions made by the generations part of those civilizations. So, is it the story of numbers, well, in part yes, in part no. It is more of history of numbers than story of numbers (is there a big difference I wonder !). Should you read the book – yes, go ahead read it. It is a brief overview of how we humans have started counting and our perceptions about numbers – from the initial evidence of counting, to the Babylonians, the ancient – Egyptians, Greeks, Chinese, Indians right to where we are now. It is not a complete record of the history of the numbers, but it is enough of a record to pique one’s interest about the history of arithmetic and logistics (calculation as defined by the ancient Greeks).
The book chronicles the various civilizations – Sumeria and Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, Arab, Jewish, Mayan, Indian, Chinese and the contributions done at various times by each of these civilizations. This post is going to be too small to describe all of those, but the majority of Mathematical innovation done by these civilizations were to solve practical problems – like finding out how to organize the queens for the Chinese king or handling fractions. Most of the time was spent in finding specific solutions rather than general ones, though, things seem to have changed with the Arab introduction of algebra.
The description of the modern times (so to speak) from Francis Bacon onwards is rather lacklustre. I would have preferred that the author spent more time on the historical times trying to provide more anecdotes on how the Mathematical innovations shaped civilizations. Nevertheless, I would suggest this book to anyone interested in the history of one of the very basic thing we take for granted – the number :). Will rate it a 8 out of 10, for the effort in trying to get the historical details about numbers. That sure is worth the time spent.
As an aside, in case you are interested in Mathematical feuds, listen to this interesting program about the history of Calculus.