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Is That a Big Number?

Andrew C. A. Elliott
Oxford University Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Megan Sawyer
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Is That a Big Number? is an easy but excellent read for the person who wants to understand large numbers in context of everyday life. Sprinkled throughout the text are what Elliott calls “landmark numbers,” which are used as comparison numbers for the associated text. These landmark numbers (with concepts ranging from the length of the Amazon river, the maximum load a person can carry in their arms, and the percentage of people living in extreme poverty in 2015) are easy ways for the author — and the reader — to conceptualize how large or small a number may be. A key tenet of this book is the idea of comparison: every example the author provides is stacked against a well-known fact. Every chapter ends with a list of (approximate) relations to help the reader grasp magnitudes of heights, distances, weights, and riches.

A particular concept that stood out to this reviewer was the way in which the author didn’t just give the relations between a particular number and its landmark pair; Elliott guided the reader through the method of approximating. Visuals smattered through text include timelines, graphs, and graphics superimposed on an image (p. 81, used for estimating seats in an arena). Each visual was relevant to the surrounding text and served to help the reader understand a concept relative to a landmark number.

Is That a Big Number? concludes with a discussion of the Millennium Declaration, a set of eight international development objectives. With the understanding of numbers developed through text, Elliott approaches each of these goals and associated targets with a measuring eye. Each target is assigned an achievement level, but more helpful is the reasoning the author gives behind assigning that level. This reasoning gives a sense of what has been done and what remains, and in some sense, puts the onus on the reader to go the next step, using the five visualization techniques provided through the book, to change the world for the better.

Megan Sawyer is an associate professor of mathematics at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, NH.

Counting Numbers
What Counts?: How we get from 1, 2, 3 to "How many fish in the sea?"
Numbers in the World: How numeracy connects to everyday life
The Second Technique: Visualisation Paint a picture in your mind
Measuring Up
About the Size of it: Numbers to Quantify the Space we Live in
The Third Technique: Divide and Conquer Take one bite at a time
Ticking Away: How we measure the fourth dimension
An Even Briefer History of Time
Multidimensional Measures: Areas and Volumes
The Fourth Technique: Rates and Ratios Knock 'em down to size
Massive Numbers: Heavy-duty numbers for weighing up
Getting up to speed: Putting a value on velocity
Numbers in the Wild: Variability and Distribution
The Fifth Technique: Log Scales Comparing the very small to the very big
The Numbers of Science
Heavens Above: Measuring the Universe
A Bundle of Energy: Measuring the Spark
Bits, Bytes and Words: Measurement for the Information Age
Let Me Count the Ways: The Biggest Numbers in the Book
Numbers in Public Life
The Bluffer's Guide to National Finances
Everybody Counts: Population Growth and Decline
Measuring How We Live: Inequality and Quality of life
Summing Up: Numbers Still Count