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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!

The Indiana Pi Legislation

This is a guest post by Storm Reinbolt, outlining a historical mathematical incident which almost caused a misdefinition!

π is an irrational number that is equal to 3.1415926535 (to 10 digits). Things could have been different, however, if Dr. Edward J. Goodwin succeeded in passing Indiana Bill No. 246. This bill would have completely changed π and mathematics as a whole.

In 1894, Dr. Goodwin, a physician who dabbled in mathematics, claimed to have solved some of the most complex problems in math. Among these was the problem of squaring the circle, which was proposed to be impossible by the French Academy in 1775. This is impossible due to the fact the area of a circle is $\pi \cdot r^2$, where $r$ is the radius, and the area of a square is $s^2$, where $s$ is the length of each side.

A circle with radius labelled as 1 overlaid on a square with radius labelled the square root of π.

This was proven by Ferdinand von Lindemann in 1882, and is what makes squaring a circle impossible.

In order to square a circle, $\pi \cdot r^2$ must be equal to $s^2$. For example, if $r=1$, we would have $\pi \cdot 1^2 = s^2$, or $\pi = s^2$. This would mean that each side of the square is equal to the square root of π, and since π is transcendental, there’s no algebraic expression that could describe π. 

Regardless, Goodwin claimed to have done it, and published his paper to American Mathematical Monthly in 1894. It was gibberish, and no amount of understanding in mathematics would make his work comprehensible. He claimed nine different values of π across his many works, with one claim going as far as $9.2376\ldots$, “the biggest overestimate of π in the history of mathematics” (A History of Pi). When his theories weren’t becoming popular, he decided to take them to the Indiana State Legislature on January 18, 1897.

Photo of the Indiana Statehouse, a large building with columns and arched windows, cream walls and green domed roofs, set in a garden in the middle of a city
The Indiana Pi Legislature took place here, in the Indiana Statehouse. Photo CC BY-SA 3.0 Massimo Catarinella, from Wikipedia

Goodwin had convinced his state representative, Taylor I. Record, to introduce House Bill 246 (Indiana Bill No. 246). House Bill 246 would make Goodwin’s method of squaring the circle a part of Indiana law. However, those in the legislature either didn’t understand or didn’t even glance at the bill – and the House Committee on Canals decided to pass it. Dr. Goodwin’s ridiculous bill was now headed to the senate.

At the statehouse where the senate took up the bill was Professor Clarence Abiathar Waldo, a mathematics professor from New York. When Waldo heard what the bill was about, he was shocked to discover he was in the middle of a debate on a fundamental principle of mathematics. He decided to intervene and talk to the senators about the repercussions the bill would have on everything mathematics, and was able to stop the bill from passing the second chamber.

After Waldo’s intervention, it was clear to everyone that the people involved in the attempted passing of the bill, including Dr. Goodwin, were all wrong, and it was ridiculous to define mathematical truth by law.

Recurring decimals and 1/7

This is a guest post by David Benjamin.

Rational numbers, when written in decimal, either have a terminating string of digits, like $\frac{3}{8}=0.375$, or produce an infinite repeating string: one well-known example is $\frac{1}{7}=0.142857142857142857…$, and for a full list of reciprocals and their decimal strings, the Aperiodical’s own Christian Lawson-Perfect has built a website which generates a full list.

I’ve collected some interesting observations about the patterns generated by the cycles of recurring decimals, and in particular several relating to $\frac{1}{7}$.

What does DALL·E ‘think’ mathematics and a mathematician looks like?

DALL·E is an Artificial Intelligence (AI) system that has been designed to generate new images given a text prompt. It’s very much like doing a Google image search with one very important difference: DALL·E doesn’t try to find existing images to match your query, but creates a handful of new ones that it hopes will fit the bill.

Sequences in the classroom

Guest author David Benjamin shares some of his favourite ways to use sequences in a teaching context.

As a maths teacher, I’ve found that sequences are a great way to engage and inspire mathematical reasoning. I thought I’d share some examples of sequences, and sequence-related activities, I’ve used with success in the past.

John Conway and his fruitful fractions

Following on from the series of ‘Pascal’s Triangle and its Secrets‘ posts, guest author David Benjamin shares another delightful piece of mathematics – this time relating to prime numbers.

At the time of writing the largest known prime number has $24862048$ digits. The number of digits does not reflect the true size of this prime but if we were to type it out at Times New Roman font size 12, it would reach approximately $51.5$ km, or about $32$ miles. Astonishing!

Patrick Laroche from Ocala, Florida discovered this Mersenne prime on December 7, 2018. I was surprised to discover that it’s exponent $82589933$ is the length of the hypotenuse of a primitive Pythagorean triple where $82589933^{2} = 30120165^{2} + 76901708^{2}$ as indeed are 8 of the exponents of those currently ranked from 1 to 10.

The Greek mathematician Euclid of Alexandria ($\sim$325 BC-265 BC) was arguably the first to prove that there are an infinite number of primes – and since then, people have been searching for new ones. Some do it for kudos, for the prize money, to test the power of computers and the need to find more of the large primes used to help protect the massive amount of data which is being moved around the internet.

Mersenne primes, named after the French monk Marin Mersenne, are of the form $2^{p} -1$, where the exponent $p$ is also prime. Mersenne primes are easier to test for primality, which is one reason we find so many large ones (all but one of the top ten known primes are Mersenne). When Mersenne primes are converted to binary they become a string of $1$s, which makes them suitable for computer algorithms and an excellent starting point for any search.

Image of Marin Mersenne, a French monk in a cowl
Marin Mersenne

Since generally testing numbers for primality is slow, some have tried to find methods to produce primes using a formula. Euler’s quadratic polynomial $n^2+n+41$ produces this set of $40$ primes for $n = 0$ to $39$. When $n=40$, the polynomial produces the square number $1681$. Other prime-generating polynomials are listed in this Wolfram Mathworld entry.

The French mathematician Lejeune Dirichlet proved that the linear polynomial $a+nb$ will produce an infinite set of primes if $a$ and $b$ are coprime for $n=0,1,2,3,4,…$. Then again, it also produces an infinite number of composite numbers! However, this gem: $224584605939537911 + 1813569659748930n$ produces 27 consecutive primes for $n=0$ to $n=26$ – and of course, all the primes are in arithmetic progression.

14 fruitful fractions

The primes are unpredictable, and become less common as they get larger. Consequently there is no formula that will generate all the prime numbers. However, there is a finite sequence of fractions, that – given an infinite amount of time – would generate all the primes, and in sequential order.

They are the fruitful fractions, created by the brilliant Liverpool-born mathematician, John Horton Conway (1937–2020) who, until his untimely death from complications related to COVID-19, was the John von Neumann Emeritus Professor in Applied and Computational Mathematics at Princeton University, New Jersey, USA.

Photo of John Conway standing in front of a blackboard; he is a middle-aged white man with a beard and moustache
John Horton Conway (Photo: Denise Applewhite, Office of Communications)

The fruitful fractions are


The first time I encountered this set of fractions was in the wonderful book, The Book of Numbers, by Conway and Guy. I was so intrigued as to how Conway came up with his idea, I emailed him to ask. I was delighted to receive an outline of an explanation and even a second set of fractions, neither of which I can now find – it was 1996 and pre-cloud storage! But no worries… Conway explains everything in this lecture, which also demonstrates his passion for mathematics and his ability to express his ideas in a relaxed and humorous way, even when he searches for an error in his proof on 26 minutes. The lecture also includes an introduction to Conway’s computer language, FRACTRAN, which includes the statement:

It should now be obvious to you that you can write a one line fraction program that does almost anything, or one and a half lines if you want to be precise‘.

Using the fractions to find prime numbers

Here’s how the fractions are used to generate primes.

  • Start with the number $2$
  • Multiply by each of the fourteen fractions until you find one for which the product is an integer
  • Starting with this new integer, continue multiplying through the fractions until another integer is produced. (If this process reaches fraction $N=\frac{55}{1}$, the integer’s product with N is guaranteed to be another integer as N has a denominator of $1$; the process continues with this new integer being multiplied by fraction A)
  • Continue multiplying through the set to create more integers
  • When the integer is a power of $2$, its exponent will be a prime number.

The 19 steps needed to produce the first prime number are:

$2 \overset{ \times M}{\rightarrow} 15 \overset{ \times N}\rightarrow 825\overset{ \times E} \rightarrow 725 \overset{ \times F}\rightarrow 1925\overset{ \times K} \rightarrow 2275 \overset{ \times A}\rightarrow 425 \overset{ \times B}\rightarrow 390 \overset{ \times J}\rightarrow 330 \overset{ \times E}\rightarrow 290 \overset{ \times F}\rightarrow 770 \overset{ \times K}\rightarrow 910\overset{ \times A} \rightarrow 170\overset{ \times B} \rightarrow 156\overset{ \times J} \rightarrow 132\overset{ \times E} \rightarrow 116 \overset{ \times F}\rightarrow 308\overset{ \times K} \rightarrow 364\overset{ \times A} \rightarrow 68 \overset{ \times I}\rightarrow 4 \equiv2^{2}$

The number of steps needed to produce the first 7 primes are shown in the table below:


And here is the start and end of the sequence of fractions used to produce the next prime number from $2^{2}$:

$4 \overset{ \times M}{\rightarrow} 30 \overset{ \times M}\rightarrow 225\overset{ \times N} \rightarrow 12375 \overset{ \times E}\rightarrow 10875 \rightarrow \cdots \rightarrow 232 \overset{ \times F}{\rightarrow} 616 \overset{ \times K}\rightarrow 728\overset{ \times A} \rightarrow 136 \overset{ \times I}\rightarrow 8\equiv2^{3}$

The steps needed for the first 34 primes are given as OEIS A007547 and the first 8102 products in the B-list for A007542.

The successive primes are produced almost like magic – but the number of multiplications needed to produce each new prime becomes larger and larger, and so the method, though wonderfully inventive, is not at all efficient.

Edit: Since this article was first published, the exponent $82589933$ of the Laroche prime has been accepted as the next term in the sequence

Further Reading on John Conway