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The Sciences

A Mathematical Mystery Tour

A new book explores the relationships between the mathematical and natural worlds.

By Charles SeifeApril 16, 2008 5:00 AM

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One to Nine: The Inner Life of Numbers by Andrew Hodges

(W. W. Norton, $23.95)

One to Nine takes readers on a dizzying digit-by-digit tour of the mathematical and natural worlds. The number five reminds Andrew Hodges of a peculiar mathematical object related to the propagation of bunnies and the pattern of sunflower heads. Three prompts him to riff on color vision (there are three types of color receptor in the eye) and subatomic particles (“Three quarks for Muster Mark!”). Four introduces a discussion of musical scales and the theory of relativity. A byte, eight bits long, leads to an essay about computers and unimaginably large numbers.

Hodges may be more fond of tangents than linear narrative, but no matter. Numbers have uncountable volumes of stories to tell; should the publisher be so inclined, there are infinite opportunities for sequels.

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