Book review: Fantastic numbers and where to find them

My PhD supervisor, Tony, has published a book. It’s titled, Fantastic Numbers and Where to Find Them: A Cosmic Quest from Zero to Infinity.

Full disclosure: I read one of the earliest drafts, which must have been about two years ago. It was quite enjoyable witnessing the book develop, hearing about new chapter plans, and talking with Tony about what ideas he was playing with at the time. One of my favourite chapters is the one on infinities, recounting the story of Cantor and the development of QED, which, if I remember, precedes the discussion on strings and the holographic principle. The infinite maladies, it is termed. And there is a wonderful line somewhere within that goes something to the effect: if Cantor’s spirit is to be seen in nature, it will be in the physics of quantum gravity. It’s a lovely little line that captures a subtle piece of history: from Cantor’s trauma to the deeper logic that leads us to strings! Brilliant!

On an even more personal note, what strikes me most about the book is how its many pages capture so much about how I’ve come to know Tony over the past few years. The book conveys an honest and genuine passion for the deep beauty of numbers. Its entire purpose is driven to describe some of the most remarkable numbers, like the googolplex or Tree(3), and even more importantly how they relate to the miraculous physics that governs our universe. I read one reviewer describe their experience as though they were discussing the secrets of the universe with a friend. I think this is perfect. The honest enthusiasm that jumps out from each page, it very much reminds me of the same keeness and interest that drives so many of our discussions in front of the whiteboard – whether Tony and I are talking big numbers, insanely cool sums, or stringy things. For the reader who enjoys popular science, I think it will prove to be a fun read.