Alex Through the Looking-Glass: How Life Reflects Numbers, and Numbers Reflect Life by Alex Bellos (Bloomsbury £10.99)

Alex Bellos is on a mission. He wants us to experience the joy of understanding numbers. He wants to illuminate our world and show us the power mathematics has over us at every turn, from the choices we make in our shopping habits, to the decision made long ago about the number of days in a week.

He is interested in the patterns made by numbers that may seem random but are really not. One example is Benford’s law which is an observation about the frequency distribution of certain numbers in numerical data. The numbers from 1-10 conform to a certain pattern so often, that this information is now used in forensic accounting to help flag up discrepancies. Accounting fraud and election fraud have both been detected using this method.

The way the chapters work in this book is very helpful. Alex gently leads us into an idea with anecdotes and explanations. He also talks to some of the mathematical pioneers working in a particular field. He then allows the explanation to get a little more complex, going into the detail for those who want to truly dig deep. If you start to get lost in the maths, he pulls you back, explaining why such and such a thing is relevant and important in the wider world.

His enthusiasm is infectious. We find out how trigonometry and the use of triangulation are deeply connected to the history of mapping and empire building, and to Ancient Greece. On a tour of the circle, we are taken from harmonographs of the Victorian drawing room to the recording of sound.

This is a fantastic book for the curious minded. Plus, for a great evening out, Alex Bellos is talking at the Festival of Ideas in York on Thursday June 6 at St Peter’s School (7pm), tickets free via Eventbrite.

Philippa Morris