Thinking in Numbers by Daniel Tammet

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Thinking in Numbers: How Maths Illuminates Our Lives

Five words from the blurb: imagine, universe, counting, mathematics, everyone

Daniel Tammet is an autistic savant with an amazing ability to recall words and numbers. I loved his autobiography, Born on a Blue Day, so much that I went to hear him talk at the Edinburgh Festival last month. His new book, Thinking in Numbers, aims to promote a love for mathematics. Tammet explains that the subject is similar to fiction in that there are many different genres, each of which you will enjoy to a greater or lesser extent dependant on your personal taste.

Like works of literature, mathematical ideas help expand our circle of empathy, liberating us from the tyranny of a single, parochial point of view. Numbers, properly considered, make us better people.

Thinking in Numbers proved this concept by highlighting many different areas, some which I loved and others which bored me completely.

The book is divided into 25 chapters, each exploring a different area of mathematics. Tammet uses real life examples to show how important numbers are with topics as diverse as snow, Tolstoy and poetry. My personal favorites included the section that explained the different ways other cultures count and the one estimating how long an individual will live.

The quality of Tammet’s writing has improved massively since Born on a Blue Day. Everything was written clearly, with complex theories explained cleverly so that those unfamiliar with them could understand, whilst those already knowledgeable weren’t patronised.

I was a little disappointed that the book didn’t include any more explanation of the way Tammet sees numbers as complex, colourful shapes, but I did enjoy the more personal chapter about the thoughts that went through his head as he broke the world record for reciting Pi to 22,514 decimal places.

I found this book thought provoking – it is one of those books that you find yourself quoting to others. I guarantee that you won’t enjoy every chapter, but there is enough contained within it to entertain everyone.


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  1. Audra says:

    Oh — this sounds fascinating. I’m a total math dummy but I do enjoy non-fiction about math and the sciences — provided it’s not too, well, hard — this sounds like something I’d love. Thanks for lifting up a book I would have otherwise never noticed!

    1. Jackie says:

      Audra, it sounds as though this book is right for you. There are a couple of chapters that might go over your head, but the majority are entertaining and enable you to look at numbers in interesting new ways. Enjoy!

  2. Since my training is in mathematics I am so pleased to see people reading about the value of mathematics, and it’s non-geeky uses ;)

    I totally agree that ‘Numbers, properly considered, makes us better people’. Mathematics is simply another way to look at things – I consider this science, and all its genres, languages of themselves.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jo, I’m a scientist so also like it when numbers are made interesting to the general public. I’m sure a few more people fall in love with numbers after reading this book.

  3. Chinoiseries says:

    Mathematics, not something that calls up fuzzy feelings in me: I was never very good at it. Which makes this book all the more fascinating! I am curious to see what I’ve been missing.

    1. Jackie says:

      Chinoiseries, I’d love you to read this book and see if it does anything to warm your heart to numbers.

  4. Jenners says:

    As someone who in no way thinks in numbers, I’m glad to hear this is accessible and interesting. Sounds like his writing improved too … which means he is thinking more in words now too perhaps!

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenners, “Sounds like his writing improved too … which means he is thinking more in words now too perhaps!”
      I hadn’t thought about it like that before, but YES!

  5. Alyce says:

    I love math in a completely amateurish fan-girl way, so I would probably really like this book.

    1. Jackie says:

      Alyce, I’m pleased I was able to bring this book to your attention. Enjoy!

  6. John Braine says:

    He came up in one of my favourite books of the year Moonwalking with Einsten. A book about memory. His claims of being a savant were called into question. Which led me to watch a documentary about him also. The author of said book has good reason to believe he uses memory and calculation techniques rather than the claims he makes about seeing numbers and their sums as shapes.

    Regardless, he either has a great mind or uses his mind greatly. “Moonwalking… “and the docu are well worth a read / watch if you’re into this stuff. I’ve a great interest in memory techniques and systems.

    1. Jackie says:

      John, I don’t know how you define a savant, but either way Tammet has an outstanding memory. I haven’t read ‘Moonwalking with Einstein’, but you’ve intrigued me now and will see if I can find a copy at the library. Thanks for the recommendation!

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