Maths: not just for geeks

Philip Salter
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FOR far too many people, maths is associated with memories of torturous classes from their childhood – the slow walk towards the blackboard to undertake the intricacy of long division.

Yet there are some really good books on the market that can make maths appealing, even to the most innumerate. Indeed, the sudden rush of maths-made-fun books would imply that people are waking up to the scope and wonder of the number world.

For those who wake up with cold sweats reliving their maths lessons, Lawrence Potter’s Mathematics Minus Fear (Penguin, £9.99) – which has just been reprinted – is the place to face up to the terror. The style is fluent and interlaced with puzzles designed to slowly build the reader’s confidence. It is the perfect combination of practical maths advice and irreverent facts: both teaching readers how to work out VAT and why weather forecasts are wrong. Provided the reader makes it through to the end – and is able to remember half of what they have read – they will have a better grasp of numbers than most of the UK.

For those that aren’t scared stiff by numbers, but want to learn more, Alex’s Bellos’s Adventures in Numberland (Bloomsbury, £18.99) will enthuse. Alex Bellos is to numbers what Brian Cox is to cosmology. Starting with chapter zero, all twelve chapters are a fascinating exploration of the wonders of maths. A warning though – there is a risk that you will end up telling a room full of people that you are convinced by the argument for using base 12 instead of base 10, which will likely lead to you not being invited back. Bellos is also the author of a book that needed to be written, if only for the title: Here’s Looking at Euclid.

Even if you want to escape maths, you may not be able to. Mathematics of Life by Ian Stewart (Profile, £20) argues that it will underpin future discoveries in biology, a science most remembered by adults for the dissection of frogs. Many other areas of life are also being put into the mathematicians’ notebook.

Innumeracy is on the rise. These books show why we shouldn’t give up hope. In the same way that adults often take an interest in history once beyond the classroom, there is no reason more shouldn’t be studying mathematics. The history, peculiarities and practice of mathematics offer something for anyone with a smidgen of intellectual curiosity.

Ebury, £11.99

CAITLIN Moran thinks porn is great. She can’t understand what feminists (not her brand of barstool raver feminist, with mad hair, no problem talking about her genitalia and a bevvy of rock star mates) object to. Seemingly uninterested in writing about the fact that the majority of female porn actresses have been victims of child sexual abuse and that the industry is a pretty ropey environment for its actresses, the main problem with porn, says Moran, is that there aren’t enough women having orgasms in it. It seems a tip-of-iceberg viewpoint, really.

Moran has a cultish following for her music journalism and her long stint writing humorous features about TV and celebrities in the Times. People go mad for her guileless, funny prose, hailing her turns of phrase as the best in the land.

The result has made her lazy. This book, part memoir, “part rant”, reads not like a feminist manifesto for the modern woman – of which Moran is quite right, we are in dire need – but like a narcissistic ramble through the life, times and bodily explorations of Caitlin Moran. There are a lot of capital letters. A lot of exclamation marks. A lot of jokes interrupting clauses. Moran states early on that what she wants us to do is to point our fingers at the things that stand in our way and give a bit “HA!” But, having read superb, fact and idea-packed books about femininism by feminists Ariel Levy and Natasha Walter, by comparison Moran seems embarassed about feminism, not proud as she claims to be. For if she believed in the integrity of the cause, why should she need to cloak it all behind goofy names for female body parts and hilarious tales of masturbation and periods? The issue now is not making people less squeamish about childbirth (does anyone think it’s a walk in the park?!) but about getting women to value their brains over the number of inches on their new skyscraper heel.

Yes, Moran was 16 stone and grew up in a council house in Wolverhampton with seven younger siblings. It’s good material. But it has little to do with the kind of feminism that will change the world. Just ask Germaine.

Zoe Strimpel