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Numbers at Work: A Cultural Perspective

Rudolf Taschner
A K Peters
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Sarah Boslaugh
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I’ve always retained a secret fondness for the “Child’s Book of Wonders” type of book, the best of which bring together an attractive selection of knowledge (the seven wonders of the ancient world! stories of exploration and adventure!) from the adult world, attractively packaged with lots of color pictures and not too much arduous text. I must not be alone in this regard, because Conn Iggulden’s The Dangerous Book for Boys (Collins, 2007), a clear throwback to this type, has been burning up the bestseller lists. In addition, I suspect that not all copies were purchased for, or read exclusively by, boys in the usual sense of the term.

There’s no reason kids should have all the fun. After all, many of us overworked adults could use an intellectually respectable version of these children’s books for ourselves, one which presented appealing tidbits of knowledge attractively yet also provided sufficient depth and context to prevent us from becoming frustrated with the lack of real information provided. Rudolf Taschner’s Numbers at Work is just this type of book: its goal is to present to the general reader a sense of how mathematics is involved in many fields of study, from art and music to politics and science.

That description is a bit too serious, however. Numbers at Work is really a sort of a modern cabinet of curiosities collected from the mathematical world, and I mean that in the best sense: Taschner has created a collection of interesting and wonderful facts which illustrate how mathematics is involved in many areas of human endeavor. Reading such a book leaves one with two feelings: the world is full of marvels, and human intelligence is also a marvelous thing. The volume is attractively printed, with many color illustrations, and the text is lively and easily comprehensible by non-specialists.

Each chapter is organized around a theme and a single individual, but the scope of discussion within those bounds is remarkably wide-ranging. Taking the opening chapter as an example, its title is "Pythagoras: Number and Symbol” but the chapter includes discussion of, among other things, Thales of Miletus and the solar eclipse of 585 BC, counting systems or lack thereof in different cultures and historical periods, divine meanings attached to specific numbers, magic squares, and biblical numerology. Similarly, the third chapter, ”Hofmannsthal: Numbers and Time” uses a poem by Hugo von Hofmannsthal as a jumping off point for a discourse on human experience of time and methods which have been used to divide and categorize it, beginning with the declaration of Parmenides of Elea (born c. 515 BC) that time is an illusion, up to Erwin Schroedinger's (1887–1961) idea that our shared sense of time is cause by a single consciousness underlying each individual consciousness.

Rudolf Taschner received his doctorate in1976 from the Technical University of Vienna and his habilitation (postdoctoral lecture qualification) in 1981. He is a professor of mathematics at the Technical University of Vienna and was named Austria’s Scientist of the Year in 2004 by the Austrian Association of Journalists in Science. Taschner also created, a project within Vienna’s MuseumsQuartier which aims to present mathematics as a cultural achievement, and has written several books on math and science for a general audience.

Sarah Boslaugh ( is a Performance Review Analyst for BJC HealthCare and an Adjunct Instructor in the Washington University School of Medicine, both in St. Louis, MO. Her books include An Intermediate Guide to SPSS Programming: Using Syntax for Data Management (Sage, 2004), Secondary Data Sources for Public Health: A Practical Guide (Cambridge , 2007), and Statistics in a Nutshell (O'Reilly, forthcoming), and she is Editor-in-Chief of The Encyclopedia of Epidemiology (Sage, forthcoming).


The table of contents is not available.