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The Big Bang of Numbers

Manil Suri
W. W. Norton & Company
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Hannah Robbins
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Manil Suri’s goal in writing The Big Bang of Numbers is to engage the reader in an extended contemplation of the mathematical underpinnings of the tools we commonly associate with math classes.  In a way, he is playing a mathematical joke on readers in the following sense: Anyone who loves math lives in dread of questions like “Why do I need to know about algebra?”  As any good mathematician would, Suri has generalized this question to “Why do I need to know about X?” where X is some mathematical idea, and then cleverly written his book to address that question for as many possible mathematical ideas X as he can.  
The mathematical ideas are presented here as an extended thought experiment, with Suri leading the reader through the various stages of mathematical construction from the literal nothingness of the empty set up through quite complicated mathematical concepts like different sizes of infinity.  This has the benefit over simply telling the reader about these ideas of allowing readers to experience the attitude of curious exploration that attracts mathematicians to the discipline but is often absent from low-level math classes.  
Suri’s tone is quite unique and personal, addressing the reader as “you” rather than saying “we” as in most professional math books or writing in third person as most nonfiction books do.  He also writes quite informally with many asides and jokes.  How well this will work for any given reader is as hard a question to answer as how funny a given viewer will find a comedy show, but it does create a strikingly different atmosphere for the reader than more traditional general audience math books.  
I imagine this book would best be appreciated by math-adjacent people like my medically educated parents who want to understand why this field is so loved by their math professor daughter.  It would also be a great sneak peek ahead for anyone interested in mathematical ideas, but bored by the lack of conceptual depth in their introductory math classes.  


Hannah Robbins is a professor at Roanoke College in southwestern Virginia.