Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Review - Asimov on Numbers by Isaac Asimov

Short review: A number of essays loosely tied together with the theme of "numbers" (although for some the connection is very tenuous). Most are interesting, some are not.

Talk about numbers
Pi, e, and infinity
Which lake is biggest?

Full review: For several years running, Asimov wrote a regular column on general science for Fantasy & Science Fiction. These columns were later compiled into a series of books grouped by topic. Asimov on Numbers consists of those essays that Asimov wrote concerning math and (as one would expect) numbers.

In the first several essays in the book, Asimov takes on mathematical concepts like e, i, pi, and infinity – defining and explaining the terms, as well as attempting to give a little bit of history concerning their development. In later essays, Asimov discusses such "numbers" related topics as the metric system, roman numerals, and the structure of the calendar. The last few essays focus on taking about various geographical data, such as identifying the tallest mountains, or biggest lakes and islands (and coming up with multiple ways to judge which particular geographical feature gets the top spot in each category). Some of these essays can only be described as being about "numbers" in the very loosest sense, and probably appear in this volume mostly because they wouldn't fit into Asimov on Biology or any of the others in the series.

As I have noted elsewhere, Asimov's direct writing style, while sometimes a hindrance when writing fiction, is quite effective for non-fiction writing. His humor, while often groan-inducing, serves to leaven what could otherwise have been some interminably dull topics. The essays are intended for a general audience, so anyone who has studied mathematics to any great extent will likely not get much out of the essays other than Asimov's quirky and somewhat humorous take on various concepts. For someone who is almost entirely ignorant of anything beyond the most basic math, this book would be a decent, although sometimes meandering, introduction to the subject. Overall, this is a competent but unspectacular look into what could have been a relatively dry subject.

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