Proms at St Judes: How did maths begin? Why are there 360 degrees in a circle? Mathematician answers all

Alex Bellos

Alex Bellos - Credit: Archant

Writer Alex Nellos talks to Bridget Galton about why the origins of maths and why it’s so important.

Not just a music festival, St Jude’s also runs a weekend of literary talks including this year; MP Alan Johnson, Stanley Johnson and crime writer Michael Ridpath.

On June 20 at 2pm Kilburn-based writer Alex Bellos gives an interactive talk on the joy of numbers.

The author of popular science books Alex’s Adventures in Numberland and Alex Through the Looking Glass explains most people’s aversion to maths is because at school it was all about exams and tests.

“Most people don’t know maths is interesting because they had a bad curriculum, bad teaching or bad environment because it wasn’t cool.

“After studying maths I became a journalist which is essentially being professionally curious and telling stories. I’ve applied that to telling fascinating, fun stories about numbers that you don’t have to be good at maths to understand.”

Always looking for a numbers-related “angle” when fans kept asking: ‘what’s your favourite number?’ Bellos was initially irked by the simplistic question, but then turned it around on them.

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“People had really serious responses, so I thought ‘this is something people care about, why not quantify it?’ His online poll was answered by 40,000 people from all over the world.

Interested in the “psychological and cultural associations of numbers” (such as why odds are considered masculine, and evens feminine) he adds: “People are really emotional about numbers, they influence what we think, how we behave and make decisions.”

He’s investigated recurring number patterns, how slot machine odds are set, an Indian guru who embraces zero and nothingness, and ancient number systems.

“Why are there 360 degrees in a circle? It’s not just because it’s convenient, it’s a Babylonian invention related to their positional system of numbers.

“Why are triangles so important? Without them we wouldn’t have accurate maps of the world or have got to the moon.”

One question he asks is where does maths begin?

“You could say it was Thales measuring the pyramid in 600 BC, calculating the height without going to the top by seeing how the shadow fell, taking a small stick to measure that shadow and working out the ratio through deductive logic. All maths is abstraction and deduction. People say you should learn it because it’s useful, but I say it’s culturally enriching. Once you understand it you can appreciate the world better in the same way that studying Shakespeare makes you appreciate the world better.”