The Story of Numbers.

John McLeish has a pleasant, dry wit that makes me
want to take Calculus 101 over again. It is quite possible I will flunk it all
over again, as well, but at least I will have been more amused along the

The Story of Numbers is one of the
Leigh’s Canon of Books That Must Be Spared From Garage Sales. This canon
includes James Gleick’s Chaos, Bart Kostko’s Fuzzy Logic, anything by Edward
Gorey and the Pliocene/Milieu saga by Julian May.

Throughout history, culture (including
religious beliefs) has directed – and sometimes blinded – the search for
knowledge. Literacy and numeracy, in many early cultures, were the preserve of
the spiritual and material elite. (It’s fair to suppose that anything you do
that has nothing to do with immediate survival is a luxury. About the only
numeracy you would need would be on the order of, “There are two mastodons
coming! Run!”)

McLeish finds it difficult
to suppress his contempt of the Greeks, whom most of us believe were responsible
for, among other things, geometry and that blasted Pythagorean theorem.
Pythagoras was a mystic, and his cult believed that numbers were holy and
shouldn’t be shared with other people. Once you joined the cult, you were told
the holiest equation of them all, which was never supposed to be told outsiders:
that 1+2+3+4 = 10.

The Chinese figured
out quadratic equations and other number essentials 2000 years before Europe and
were using it in such practicalities as fingering tax cheats and assigning
concubines to the Emperor. Greek ideas about number set back Western
civilization hundreds of years, while the Arab and Hindu worlds were doing place
values and algebra.

My favorite chapter
in the book has to be the one with Charles Babbage, Ada Augusta Lovelace and
Monsieur Jacquard. Jacquard is now the generic term for a kind of fabric with a
raised pattern woven in. Jacquard the person invented a mechanical loom guided
by punched cards that either stopped the needles or let them go through (yes!
binary!). Ada (considered the world’s first programmer) used the same principles
to develop mathematical programs for Charles Babbage’s differential engine.
Today, we have computers masquerading as Issey Miyake-esque jackets.

Full circle.