On the evening of Tuesday 13th March a group of VIth form scholars and aspiring mathematicians listened to Alex Bellos, a journalist and broadcaster, present his ‘Adventures in Numberland’. Having studied Mathematics and Philosophy at university but having then turned to journalism, he told us of his return to numerical exploration, a voyage of discovery that had taken him around the world as he looked into the origin of numbers and different cultures’ relationships with them.
Beginning with questions to the audience such as “what is your favourite number?”, he made the whole event accessible to mathematicians and non-mathematicians alike, as he explained the origin of the symbols that we have come to use today, and described how scientists in Japan have taught our human number system to chimpanzees, in an attempt to gain an understanding of the cognitive processes involved with using numbers.
As well as looking at the importance of the concept of zero and its origins in India, he described the popular use of the abacus in Japan, and showed us examples of its use in allowing for absurdly high-speed arithmetic to be done. His accessible and enthusiastic manner kept the audience interested for the duration, and advertised Mathematics as a genuinely interesting and diverse subject.