News / USA

    Bringing the Beauty of Math to Life

    Book explores extraordinary mathematical achievements

    Multimedia

    Audio
    Faiza Elmasry

    Approaches to math differ around the world. In Japan, millions of children study the abacus for fun after school.
    Approaches to math differ around the world. In Japan, millions of children study the abacus for fun after school.

     

    For many people, math can be intimidating. But Alex Bellos finds it intriguing.

    The journalist has degrees in mathematics and philosophy from Oxford University. After 20 years as a reporter, Bellos decided to combine his profession and his degrees. He traveled around the world - and back in time - to uncover fascinating stories of mathematical achievements and to profile people whose lives are intertwined with numbers.



    Alex Bellos discovered that mathematics - which seems so absolute - is not the same everywhere around the globe.

    "While two plus two is indeed four all over the world, the approach to math is so, so different," Bellos says. "I came from the U.K. where being good at math is seen as being uncool. This is not the case even in France. The French love their math. It's quite cool to be a mathematician. Mathematicians in France are seen as great intellectuals. And being good at arithmetic in India is almost seen as a badge of national pride. In Japan, which is a culture most different from mine, a million children study the abacus for fun after school. Counting is seen as fun. It's quite fun to be able to calculate and do multiplication very, very quickly."

    In his new book, 'Here's Looking at Euclid,' Alex Bellos recounts his math adventures.
    In his new book, 'Here's Looking at Euclid,' Alex Bellos recounts his math adventures.

     

    Japan was one of the places Bellos visited on his year-long journey. There, he met the creator of the popular Sudoku puzzles and talked about the brain-teasing delights of mathematical games.

    In a town near Tokyo, he spent time with a guru of origami, the traditional Japanese art of paper folding. Origami, Bellos says, is one of the hottest areas of mathematical work today.

    "It turns out that origami is a brilliant way to understand geometry," he says. "And if you start to think about paper folding, there are lots of things you can't do with the methods that have been taught in schools really since the Greeks. For instance, trisection of an angle. Just using a compass and straight-edge, you cannot construct an angle which is a third of another angle, but you can do that with origami. So it's quite interesting to think that origami in Japan, it may be a cultural thing for children, but now people study origami at the highest level in academia."

    While in Japan, Bellos also met a math whiz who is not human.

    "I met the world's most numeric chimpanzee, he says. "And it's fascinating just to see that chimpanzees can learn to count."

    'Here's Looking at Euclid,' by Alex Bellos
    'Here's Looking at Euclid,' by Alex Bellos

    Bellos recounts his adventures in a new book, "Here's Looking at Euclid." The title is a play on Humphrey Bogart's famous line, "Here's looking at you, kid," from the movie "Casablanca."  

    The ancient Greek mathematician Euclid is known as the father of geometry. Bellos also had fun with the title of the UK edition of the book, "Alex's Adventures in Numberland,"  an obvious takeoff on the British classic, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland."

    The book is subtitled, "A Surprising Excursion through the Astonishing World of Math."

    In it, Bellos talks to two Ukrainian-American brothers who have built the world's biggest supercomputer in their New York apartment. He also went to Reno, Nevada to meet the man who sets the odds for more than half of the world's slot machines. While in Missouri, Bellos met with the president of the Dozenal Society of America.

    "Dozenalists are people who believe the decimal system - the system of 10 digits, zero to nine - is not very good, is not sufficient, and suggest we need to add two extra digits," say Bellos. "One might say it's crazy, trying to introduce two new numbers to the number system, but mathematically it makes a perfect sense because multiplication and division become much easier if we count in twelves rather than tens.

    In exploring the wonder of math, Bellos discovered numbers are not innate to humans. They were first used only about 5,000 years ago. And he found groups of people today that don't use numbers at all or very few of them.

    "In the Amazon, I spoke to a man who has been researching the tribe, the Munduruku, who have numbers up to five and that's it," he says. "Actually, they maybe even have numbers up to four because they have a word for one, for two, for three-ish, for four-ish and then they use the word palm or handful for five."

    Bellos also stopped in Germany this summer to report on the bi-annual Mental Calculation World Cup. The 10-year-old competition has several categories: addition, multiplication, square root and calendar calculation. In that last event, contestants are given a number of dates and they have to figure out which days of the week those dates fall on - all in their head. The winner of the 2010 competition is 11 years old.

    "Priyanshi Somani from India. She learned to calculate using an abacus," he says. "So when she's calculating, she's moving her hands around in the air in front of her as if there is an abacus there."

    Somani later told Bellos she imagined she was using an abacus during the competition. When asked whether she could do the mental calculations without using her hands, Somani told Bellos that she didn't think so.

    Bellos embarked on his around-the-world excursion to prove that mathematics is not a dry field of learning. The stories in his book prove that it's surprising and astonishing, as surely as the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle equals the sum of the square of its two other sides.

    You May Like

    Hope Remains for Rio Olympic Games, Despite Woes

    Facing a host of problems, Rio prepares for holding the games but experts say some risks, like Zika, may not be as grave as initially thought

    IS Use of Social Media to Recruit, Radicalize Still a Top Threat to US

    Despite military gains against IS in Iraq and Syria, their internet propaganda still commands an audience; US officials see 'the most complex challenge that the federal government and industry face'

    ‘Time Is Now’ to Save Africa’s Animals From Poachers, Activist Says

    During Zimbabwe visit, African Wildlife Foundation President Kaddu Sebunya says poaching hurts Africa as slave trade once did

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Ivorian Chocolate Makers Promote Locally-made Chocolatei
    X
    July 29, 2016 4:02 PM
    Ivory Coast is the world's top producer of cocoa but hardly any of it is processed into chocolate there. Instead, the cocoa is sent abroad to chocolate makers in Europe and elsewhere. This is a general problem throughout Africa – massive exports of raw materials but few finished goods. As Emilie Iob reports from Abidjan, several Ivorian entrepreneurs are working to change that formula - 100 percent Ivorian chocolate bar at a time.
    Video

    Video Ivorian Chocolate Makers Promote Locally-made Chocolate

    Ivory Coast is the world's top producer of cocoa but hardly any of it is processed into chocolate there. Instead, the cocoa is sent abroad to chocolate makers in Europe and elsewhere. This is a general problem throughout Africa – massive exports of raw materials but few finished goods. As Emilie Iob reports from Abidjan, several Ivorian entrepreneurs are working to change that formula - 100 percent Ivorian chocolate bar at a time.
    Video

    Video Tesla Opens Battery-Producing Gigafactory

    Two years after starting to produce electric cars, U.S. car maker Tesla Motors has opened the first part of its huge battery manufacturing plant, which will eventually cover more than a square kilometer. Situated close to Reno, Nevada, the so-called Gigafactory will eventually produce more lithium-ion batteries than were made worldwide in 2013. VOA's George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Polio-affected Afghan Student Fulfilling Her Dreams in America

    Afghanistan is one of only two countries in the world where children still get infected by polio. The other is Pakistan. Mahbooba Akhtarzada who is from Afghanistan, was disabled by polio, but has managed to overcome the obstacles caused by this crippling disease. VOA's Zheela Nasari caught up with Akhtarzada and brings us this report narrated by Bronwyn Benito.
    Video

    Video Hillary Clinton Promises to Build a 'Better Tomorrow'

    Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton urged voters Thursday not to give in to the politics of fear. She vowed to unite the country and move it forward if elected in November. Clinton formally accepted the Democratic Party's nomination at its national convention in Philadelphia. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone has more.
    Video

    Video Trump Tones Down Praise for Russia

    Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is toning down his compliments for Russia and Vladimir Putin as such rhetoric got him in trouble recently. After calling on Russia to find 30.000 missing emails from rival Hillary Clinton, Trump told reporters he doesn't know Putin and never called him a great leader, just one who's better than President Barack Obama. Putin has welcomed Trump's overtures, but, as Zlatica Hoke reports, ordinary Russians say they are not putting much faith in Trump.
    Video

    Video Uganda Unveils its First Solar-powered Bus

    A solar-powered bus described by its Ugandan makers as the first in Africa has made its public debut. Kiira Motors' electric bus, Kayoola, displayed recently at a stadium in Uganda's capital. From Kampala, Maurice Magorane filed this report narrated by Salem Solomon.
    Video

    Video Silicon Valley: More Than A Place, It's a Culture

    Silicon Valley is a technology powerhouse and a place that companies such as Google, Facebook and Apple call home. It is a region in northern California that stretches from San Francisco to San Jose. But, more than that, it's known for its startup culture. VOA's Elizabeth Lee went inside one company to find out what it's like to work in a startup.
    Video

    Video Immigrant Delegate Marvels at Democratic Process

    It’s been a bitter and divisive election season – but first time Indian-American delegate Dr. Shashi Gupta headed to the Democratic National Convention with a sense of hope. VOA’s Katherine Gypson followed this immigrant with the love of U.S. politics all the way to Philadelphia.
    Video

    Video Dutch Entrepreneurs Turn Rainwater Into Beer

    June has been recorded as one of the wettest months in more than a century in many parts of Europe. To a group of entrepreneurs in Amsterdam the rain came as a blessing, as they used the extra water to brew beer. Serginho Roosblad has more to the story.
    Video

    Video Commerce Thrives on US-Mexico Border

    At the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia this week, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, is expected to attack proposals made by her opponent, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Last Friday, President Barack Obama hosted his Mexican counterpart, President Enrique Peña Nieto, to underscore the good relations between the two countries. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Tucson.
    Video

    Video Film Helps Save Ethiopian Children Thought to be Cursed

    'Omo Child' looks at effort of African man to stop killings of ‘mingi’ children
    Video

    Video London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunities

    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora