Monday, January 7, 2013

Numbers and the Mind

"Thinking In Numbers" is (autistic savant) Daniel Tammet's latest book. I enjoyed his first two books (HERE and HERE) a great deal, and enjoyed this one as well, although it isn't exactly what I was hoping for. It is a collection of 25 varied and entertaining (sometimes almost flight-of-fancy) essays, some far more math-or-number-related than others, that can be read out-of-order. It repeats, but may not add much new to what he has previously written about how he perceives and manipulates numbers in his own mind.

The most entertaining chapter for me came toward the end, Chapter 22, "Selves and Statistics," an essay on statistics and death... topics that might seem dry and morbid, but actually turned into a fun read -- reminded me a bit of some of Nassim Taleb's writing on how "black swans" and improbabilities actually rule the world moreso than high-probability events (I might even recommend that readers start with this chapter to set a tone and then proceed to other chapters).
I won't do a full review of Tammet's volume here, but will close with a passage I enjoyed from near the end, before simply passing along some other online links/reviews:
"Many people think of mathematics as something akin to pure logic, cold reckoning, soulless computation. But as the mathematician and educator Paul Lockhart has put it, 'There is nothing as dreamy and poetic, nothing as radical, subversive, and psychedelic, as mathematics.' The chilly analogies win out, Lockhart argues, because mathematics is misrepresented in our schools, with curricula that often favour dry, technical and repetitive tasks over any emphasis on the 'private, personal experience of being a struggling artist.'"
An interview with Daniel about the book here:

…and a couple of British reviews here:

Tammet's prior two books had wide distribution (and I think good sales) in the U.S., so I'm surprised this volume isn't more readily available in bookstores. Is it possible the titles of his first two books were simply perceived as more catchy and enticing: "Born On a Blue Day" and "Embracing the Wide Sky," while the current volume's title is viewed as too unappealing to a nation populated with math-phobes??? -- just a guess on my part.
Anyway, I give it a thumb's up, as a fun, entertaining, and interesting read, though if you're looking for deep math or science it may come up short.


Anonymous said...

Hi Shecky,

'Thinking in Numbers' will be published in the US by Little, Brown in July 2013. Your copy is the UK/Commonwealth edition published in summer 2012.

"Shecky Riemann" said...

ahhh, thanks for the info!
I've also been waiting to see "The Math Handbook"(2012) by Brit Richard Elwes appear in US bookstores. Do you possibly know anything about it?