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Review: Who’s Counting, by John Allen Paulos

We asked guest author Elliott Baxby to take a look at John Allen Paulos’ latest book, Who’s Counting.

Book cover of Who's Counting, which has the subtitle 'Uniting Numbers and Narratives with Stories from Pop Culture, Puzzles, Politics, and More'. The text has some letters replaced with digits that look similar, and has dark grey text (with the digits in different colours) on a cream background.

Mathematics is an increasingly complex subject, and we are often taught it in an abstract manner. John Allen Paulos delves into the hidden mathematics within everyday life, and illustrates how it permeates everything from politics to pop culture – for example, how game show hosts use mathematics for puzzles like the classic Monty Hall problem.

The book is a collection of essays from Paulos’ ABC News column together with some original new content written for the book, on a huge range of topics from card shuffling and the butterfly effect to error correcting codes and COVID, and even the Bible code. As it’s a collection of separate columns, it doesn’t always flow fluently – I did find myself losing focus on some of the topics covered, particularly ones that didn’t interest me as much. This was mainly down to the content though – the writing style is extremely accessible and at times witty.

The book included some interesting puzzles and questions, which were challenging and engaging, and included solutions to each problem – very helpful for a Saturday night maths challenge! I even showed some to my friends, who at times were truly puzzled. I loved the idea of puzzles being a means of sneaking cleverly designed mathematical problems onto TV game shows. It goes to show maths is everywhere!

I enjoyed the sections on probability and logic as these are topics I’m particularly interested in. One chapter also explored the constant $e$, where it came from and where else it pops up – a very interesting read. It does deserve more attention, as π seems to be the main mathematical constant you hear about, and I appreciated seeing $e$ being explored in more depth.

This book would suit anyone who seeks to see a different side of mathematics – which we aren’t often taught in school – and how it manifests itself in politics and the world around us. That said, it would be better for someone with an A-level mathematics background, as some of the topics could be challenging for a less experienced reader.

It’s mostly enjoyable and has a good depth of knowledge, including questions to test your mind. While I didn’t find all of it completely engaging, there are definitely some points made in the book that I’ll refer back to in the future!

2 Responses to “Review: Who’s Counting, by John Allen Paulos”

  1. Avatar John Allen Paulos

    As a fellow mathematician, book worm, and expert coffee drinker, I’d like to thank Elliott Baxby for his kind review, but I do have one correction. There is a good deal of new material in Who’s Counting in addition to my ABC columns.

    • Elliott Baxby Elliott Baxby

      Hello John!
      Thank you for taking the time to read my review. I have corrected my mistake regarding the correction you pointed out.
      I look forward to reading more of your work! :)


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