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The Life of Numbers

Frank J. Swetz, reviewer

The Life of Numbers,  Alberto Manguel, Antonio Duran and George Ifrah, illustrators: Sean Macksouli, Natalia Pintado, Javier Pagola, 2006.  180 pp $38.00 hard cover, illustrations, bibliography.  ISBN 84-86882-14-1.  Madrid: T. Ediciones, Distributed by A.K. Peters, Ltd, 888 Worcester Street, Wellesley, MA 02482.


This is an unusual title but this is an unusual book. It is more than a book.  It is a creative expression combining text, design and illustrations.  It was originally conceived to serve as a catalogue for “The Life of Numbers” exhibit at the 25th International Congress of Mathematicians, held in Madrid in August, 2006, but can stand alone as an intellectual and artistic tribute to the concept and existence of number.  The text consists of three essays:  Alberto Manguel describes the landscape of numbers in “Done on paper: the dual nature of numbers and the page”; Georges Ifrah provides an historical accounting in his “The way people learnt how to count and calculate” and Antonio Duran, the originator of the idea for this book, provides examples of number use in “Numbers are for counting”.  The high quality illustrations provide a visual feast.  Photographic images of manuscripts, books and other relevant objects highlight the pages and are supported by artistic portraits and whimsical and fanciful designs and sketches.  This lively volume could well serve as a “coffee table book”.

Among the authors, Ifrah is the only recognized historian of mathematics.  The material in his contributions is drawn from his opus Universal History of Numbers.  It is disappointing that in his discussion of early decimal, positional notation systems of numerals, he has ignored the existence of Chinese rod numerals and their computational facility, limiting the historical and universal scope of his coverage.  Despite this omission, this is an informative, thought provoking and aesthetically attractive book.  It appeals to a broad audience, both specialist and general reader.

The available copies of this book are limited.  It will become a collectors’ item for its uniqueness.  I highly recommend it to all readers.    


Frank Swetz, Professor Emeritus, The Pennsylvania State University

See also the MAA Review by Álvaro Lozano-Robledo.


Frank J. Swetz, reviewer, "The Life of Numbers," Convergence (August 2007)