Is that a big number? [book review]

A book I received prior to its publication a few days ago from OXford University Press (OUP), as a book editor for CHANCE (usual provisions apply: the contents of this post will be more or less reproduced in my column in CHANCE when it appears). Copy that I found in my mailbox in Warwick last week and read over the (very hot) weekend.

The overall aim of this book by Andrew Elliott is to encourage numeracy (or fight innumeracy) by making sense of absolute quantities by putting them in perspective, teaching about log scales, visualisation, and divide-and-conquer techniques. And providing a massive list of examples and comparisons, sometimes for page after page… The book is associated with a fairly rich website, itself linked with the many blogs of the author and a myriad of other links and items of information (among which I learned of the recent and absurd launch of Elon Musk’s Tesla car in space! A première in garbage dumping…). From what I can gather from these sites, some (most?) of the material in the book seems to have emerged from the various blog entries.

“Length of River Thames (386 km) is 2 x length of the Suez Canal (193.3 km)”

Maybe I was too exhausted by heat and a very busy week in Warwick for our computational statistics week, the football  2018 World Cup having nothing to do with this, but I could not keep reading the chapters of the book in a continuous manner, suffering from massive information overdump! Being given thousands of entries kills [for me] the appeal of outing weight or sense to large and very large and humongous quantities. And the final vignette in each chapter of pairing of numbers like the one above or the one below

“Time since earliest writing (5200 y) is 25 x time since birth of Darwin (208 y)”

only evokes the remote memory of some kid journal I read from time to time as a kid with this type of entries (I cannot remember the name of the journal!). Or maybe it was a journal I would browse while waiting at the hairdresser’s (which brings back memories of endless waits, maybe because I did not like going to the hairdresser…) Some of the background about measurement and other curios carry a sense of Wikipediesque absolute in their minute details.

A last point of disappointment about the book is the poor graphical design or support. While the author insists on the importance of visualisation on grasping the scales of large quantities, and the webpage is full of such entries, there is very little backup with great graphs to be found in “Is that a big number?” Some of the pictures seem taken from an anonymous databank (where are the towers of San Geminiano?!) and there are not enough graphics. For instance, the fantastic graphics of xkcd conveying the xkcd money chart poster. Or about future. Or many many others

While the style is sometimes light and funny, an overall impression of dryness remains and in comparison I much more preferred Kaiser Fung’s Numbers rule your world and even more both Guesstimation books!

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