Monday, April 24, 2017

On the Coffee Table: Eric Temple Bell

Title: The Magic of Numbers
Author: Eric Temple Bell
via Amazon
It took me a while to sort out a major in college.  I arrived fully intending to be an English major but then I hated my first lit course.  Then the activist in me thought either sociology or political science (coincidentally my parents' college majors) might fit but the intro classes didn't do much for me.  Eventually, I came around to mathematics.  All through school, math had always been by far my best subject - better than music, even.  I didn't especially enjoy it but it came easily, far more so than subjects like English and history which were considerably more fun.

Part of the problem, I think, is that I'd never gotten caught up in the history of math the way I had with music, for instance.  In kindergarten, I had a wonderful music teacher who introduced us to all of the great composers.  While I certainly enjoyed their work, I also saw them as characters in a captivating story.  I never got that with Pythagoras, Euclid or Galileo.  Math isn't really taught that way.  I enjoyed fiddling with numbers but never got caught up in the history behind them.  That is why I picked up this book, The Magic of Numbers by Eric Temple Bell.

So, that was 25 years ago.  I tried reading it that summer before sophomore year but didn't get too far.  The book has survived on my shelves through several moves and book purges.  Now, I've finally read it.

The book was interesting, though not everything I wanted it to be when I was pondering my future as a college sophomore.  Pythagoras is the star, though Plato has a strong supporting role.  While most of the book is devoted to ancient Greece, the historical path runs all the way to the 1930s.  The intertwining of mathematics and philosophy has been a vital thread for both disciplines so I suppose it shouldn't be surprising to see significant material devoted to Aristotle, Bacon and Kant in addition to Copernicus, Newton, Lobachevsky and Einstein.  There is some mention of the important work in the Arab world, though more would have been historically appropriate. 

Most of the numero-philosophy discussion was over my head though some of it was fun.  I learned about harmonic means for the first time.  You take your numbers, find their reciprocals, average their reciprocals, then reciprocate the average: 2 and 4; 1/2 + 1/4 is 3/4; half of that is 3/8; reciprocal is 8/3.  I love stuff like that.

My most meaningful connection was the discussion of the five regular polyhedra - also known as the Platonic solids - as discovered by the ancient Greeks.  These are the only convex, three-dimensional objects in Euclidean space that are comprised entirely of regular polygons: tetrahedron, cube, octahedron, dodecahedron and icosohedron.  Those of you have devoted significant portions of your life to Dungeons & Dragons know them better as the 4-sided, 6-sided, 8-sided, 12-sided and 20-sided dice.  Those dice were an important part of my childhood and while I always thought they were neat, I never before realized they were the only shapes that were composed of regular polygons.
My own dice, which I've had for closer to 35 years
For the record, there are also four star polyhedra and they're pretty cool, too:
via Dan Elton
The book was worth reading for the D&D dice discovery alone.  The book was intended for non-mathematicians though occasionally, more numbers would have been nice.  Numerology - unfortunately, the driving force in the discipline for centuries - was never fully explained.  I realize it's all hooey but Bell was clearly too disgusted to provide meaningful details of what was so objectionable.

So, 25 years later, I'm still glad I eventually majored in music.  Math might have been more profitable but music has been more fun.


  1. TAS: But is math more profitable than music? I don't think so.

    1. In terms of overall earning potential, undoubtedly. There are more lucrative private sector opportunities for a mathematician.

  2. Hahahahahahahaha... when I saw the dice I remember almost every game my children used them in.
    I would like to read about Numerology but no really high on my list.

    cheers, parsnip

    1. I am not sure I would pursue it too eagerly but it was a surprising omission here.

  3. Music has wider appeal. One would not see a math lecture as a video, would one.