Review: From 0 to Infinity in 26 Centuries by Chris Waring

From 0 to Infinity in 26 Centuries: The Extraordinary Story of Maths by Chris Waring does pretty much what it says on the cover – it’s a brief (make that very brief) history of mathemtics, that one thing that invades every aspect of our lives, whether we like it or not. It was one of those random book shop finds, something that sparked my interest one day, but could have just as easily put me off on another. It’s a book that my husband groaned at when he saw me, rolling his eyes in a bored fashion, and one that my mother, upon hearing that I’d picked it up, proclaimed “what on Earth do you want to read that for?”

The thing about maths is that it really is all-pervading. Its tentacles reach into pretty much every aspect of our lives from when we first start learning it in school to our work lives and beyond. It even features heavily in art and architecture. We learn a lot about maths – how to do basic arithmetic, more complex equations, working out areas and routes and so on – but we rarely learn about where it came from and who made the discoveries, the history of it all, and it’s that that left me so tempted.

So yeah, I was intrigued and I was right to be, for this little unassuming book turned out to be extremely interesting. Even my doubting mother enjoyed the random facts I read out to her, such as the fact that the equals sign was invented by a Welshman (go Wales!), and that Leibniz taught himself to read Latin at the age of seven. Waring’s delightful way with words helped too – he turned what could potentially be a rather stuffy, boring topic into one that was lightly humoured, easy to read, and enjoyable. The book was so stuffed full of fascinating tidbits and written in such a pleasant way that I raced through the mere 193 pages at a rate of knots.

That was one of the problems though – not so much that the book was short, but that each fact or phase in history was glanced over so briefly that you could miss it if you blinked. I suppose trying to squeeze 26 centuries into 193 pages is quite a feat – that’s almost 13 and a half years per page, after all. Still, I felt it would have been nice to have a little more detail, at least in parts. The narrative was also a little jumpy. Despite a clear attempt at a linear narrative, matheticians were mentioned on one page and then again 50 pages later, along with a handy page guide in brackets. That’s not that big a deal, of course, but following the page references (which I didn’t, by the way) could be positively dizzying.

If there’s one thing for sure, it’s that this book wouldn’t be for everyone. I mean, it’s maths – just the topic is enough to instill dread and fear in some. But if you’re interested in maths, even if you can only see a tiny inkling of vague appeal, I think you’ll like this book. It’s brief enough to keep you interested while throwing up fascinating facts in a humourous and engaging manner.

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