Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Malba Tahan - The Man Who Counted: A Collection of Mathematical Adventures

Note:  This is a review I originally posted to my Epinions account.

I actually found this book by accident. After reading another math-related book, I decided to look in the library for other similar books. I couldn't find what I was looking for, but I came across this book, the story of Beremiz Samir, a man who has exceptional math skills. The story is told by Hanak Tade Maia and starts when the two meet. Beremiz demonstrates to Hanak the unusual abilities that he has and the two become traveling companions.

Much of the story takes place in Baghdad. Beremiz solves many problems for many people. The first one that he solves is for three brothers who have inherited 35 camels. The problem is that one of them is to receive half of the camels, which is impossible since 35 is not divisible by two. Beremiz comes up with an ingenious solution. From there, the problems get more complicated, but Beremiz handles them with ease. As the problems he solves become more difficult, his fame increases, as well. He is eventually tested by seven wise men and passes all of the challenges put before him. In so doing, he gets what he wants most.

I don't want to give away too much because that would take away from the book. You don't have to be a math nut to enjoy it. All of the solutions that Beremiz came up with were explained simply enough for anyone to understand. While I think that the story itself is fiction, there are some interesting mathematical curiosities. There's one section on getting any whole number out of four fours. For instance, 1 is 44 divided by 44. 2 is four fourths plus four fourths, or 1 plus 1.

This book was translated by Leslie Clark and Alastair Reed and illustrated by Patricia Reid Baquero. Aside from the cover, the illustrations were at the beginning of each chapter and in black and white. They were simple, but worked well with the story. I actually looked forward to each new illustration.

There was something about the story that made me not want to stop reading. I like math, but I don't think that was it. It's mostly to see how good this guy really is. You have to wonder if Beremiz will ever be presented with a problem that he can't solve. That's just it, though. While Beremiz's skills are very rare, the book illustrates how useful math is.

I'd recommend this book to anyone. There was a religious aspect that might turn some people off, but I don't think that it was offensive to anyone. It shouldn't be a problem to the vast majority of the people. Most of the religious references weren't too much. The chapters were short, which made for an easy read. I almost read the entire thing in the library, but I had to be somewhere, so I checked it out and brought it home. Five stars.

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