Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “Are Numbers Real?: The Uncanny Relationship of Mathematics and the Physical World” as Want to Read:
Are Numbers Real?: The Uncanny Relationship of Mathematics and the Physical World
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

Are Numbers Real?: The Uncanny Relationship of Mathematics and the Physical World

3.54  ·  Rating details ·  183 ratings  ·  31 reviews
Have you ever wondered what humans did before numbers existed? How they organized their lives, traded goods, or kept track of their treasures? What would your life be like without them?

Numbers began as simple representations of everyday things, but mathematics rapidly took on a life of its own, occupying a parallel virtual world. In Are Numbers Real?, Brian Clegg explores
Hardcover, 304 pages
Published December 6th 2016 by St. Martin's Press
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about Are Numbers Real?, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about Are Numbers Real?

This book is not yet featured on Listopia. Add this book to your favorite list »

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 3.54  · 
Rating details
 ·  183 ratings  ·  31 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Start your review of Are Numbers Real?: The Uncanny Relationship of Mathematics and the Physical World
Jul 08, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: blue
The first thing this book has to do, before it tries to answer the question of whether or not numbers are real, is to explain what the question even means. It's sort of obvious, in one sense, that they are not concrete, you can't touch them. I mean, you can touch two of something, but you can't touch the "two" part, only the "something". On the other hand, it seems pretty obvious that the number 2 (or 3 or pi or whatever) are not arbitrary and made-up in the same sense as, say, fictional charact ...more
Peter (Pete) Mcloughlin
Shows some interesting ideas in physics related to mathematics plus some standard mathematical puzzles but only scratches the surface on the philosophical debate as to the ontological status of numbers. It is more like a muddled popularization of an idea that has been kicking around since Max Tegmark's our Mathematical Universe came out which featured the idea that our universe may be a mathematical object in a mathematical platonist heaven of all mathematical objects. I would recommend Tegmark' ...more
Jan 03, 2017 rated it liked it
I received an ARC of this book through a Goodreads giveaway.

This one is a bit tough for me to review. I really enjoyed reading Are Numbers Real? for the first third—but as soon as we got to imaginary numbers, I got lost. Just like in high school. I am not the most math-oriented person, but I wanted to give this book a try to get out of my comfort zone a bit.

I found Clegg’s writing to be engaging, and I did learn some things. The idea that numbers don’t actually “exist” is honestly something that
Eustacia Tan
May 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: owned
I wouldn’t describe myself as a numbers person, but my brother is and when we saw this book, we decided that it was too interesting to pass up.

Are Numbers Real? is a book that looks into the history behind the math. The first six chapters focus on the history of math – how would numbers come about and how mathematics developed. The history of maths is really interesting, going through the cult of Pythagoras (which reminded me of The Black Tapes podcast), the first proofs, and how the number zero
Dec 01, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction-btr
3.5 stars. This is a great intro to theoretical mathematics, it does takes something away from the narrative if you are not at least heavily interested in mathematics. Not for a amateur mathematics enthusiasts.
Jan 26, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: stem
Are numbers real? Some are.

Is math useful? Usually yes, sometimes no.

In this book, Clegg takes us on a whirlwind tour from the invention of numbers (likely simple abstraction through counting) to the current state, where advances in math generally have little to nothing to do with the world as we know it (although these advances might be used, we just don't know yet).
Todd Stockslager
May 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
Review title: Approximating reality

The question at the title of this book is deceptively simple, much like the numbers we use every day to count time, balance our accounts, and measure the miles to the store and our weight on the scales from eating too much of what we bought at the store too soon after buying it.

Clegg progresses chronologically through the history of mathematics, from the use of fingers to count specific objects, to the generalization of the counters ("hands" and "fingers" in h
Feb 10, 2017 rated it liked it
I was doing fine following along with the math and theory until I got to chapter 12 on Infinity and Beyond, and then it was downhill after that!
Feb 12, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I've been delving into physics and mathematics and have been struggling to make sense of this very question. This book did not help me. It's a solid "popular mathematics" work, and probably a really interesting read if you are looking for a light introduction to why math and physics might be interesting to learn about as a lay person. If you've learned much about the topics already, you wont learn anything new, and you will find some things that will bother you as the author doesn't get them qui ...more
Jeffrey Jacobs
May 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I really enjoyed this survey of maths and physics and how modern maths have evolved into almost a physics religion. It gives a great analysis of Noether's theorem and a rather dismissive view of String Theory for the just reason that nothing is yet testable. I did like Seife's Zero book better when it came to a discussion of the Babylonian Zero even if Clegg gives better traceability on the true origin of the most dangerous number. I liked the even handed look at Newton and Leibniz and the discu ...more
Dick Hamilton
Feb 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed this book. Each chapter covers a different point of mathematics, however, I would say that the last three to four chapters were not as easy to follow as the first ten to eleven. Granted, the author has much more difficult material to address in the later chapters, however, at times the going is tough. I am not sure if more graphic/visual presentation in these chapters would have helped but this might have been beneficial. On the whole though, a good read.
Feb 27, 2017 rated it it was ok
A sketchy look into the history of numbers, math, and physics. The book covers almost no new ground and has some mathematical and historical errors. But it's always fun to read about math and science, and the last chapter somewhat redeemed the book with an insightful look into the role of mathematics in modern physics.
Patrick Cumby
Dec 10, 2018 rated it really liked it
The title is a bit misleading, as the book is more concerned about answering the question "Are *mathematics* real?" Clegg does a great job of explaining how the use of numbers (as in counting the number of goats in your neighbor's pasture) led to the development of arithmetic, geometry, statistics, calculus, etc, and how all of these branches of math were developed in order to solve real-world problems. He shows how some of even the most abstract concepts in theoretical math have come to be valu ...more
Ashley Lambert-Maberly
I don't think I'll ever become a math or physics whiz from reading these books, but I did feel like I (mostly) understood the concepts being explained, which is good enough for me (and the intention of the author). This one erred a bit more to the physics than I was expecting (note: no use of the actual word "physics" in the title), and I would have preferred a bit more of a mathematical read, but that's nitpicking.

Spoiler alert: it seems like numbers might indeed be real, in some cases surpris
Rayfes Mondal
Feb 04, 2019 rated it really liked it
An interesting topic and it's important to note that while math may model observations accurately that there's no guarantee that it's a reflection of underlying reality. This is even more important for things like finding the Higgs boson where all we have is a lot of indirect evidence and statistics since we can't observe things directly in the quantum realm.

A lot of the book covers the history of how math concepts like imaginary numbers came into being and how they are useful. Later on author'
Jun 07, 2017 rated it really liked it
This book validates nearly everything I've every believed about mathematics: Beyond arithmetic, it's merely a theory that has no correlation to the physical world.

While I believe that the study of mathematics is important and shouldn't be discounted, I will argue its value as solid proof in the realm of physics or other scientific fields. As described in this book, physics is no longer a hard science, provable by calculation. It's merely the belief system of theoretical physicists, similar to re
Aug 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
I benefited and enjoyed reading it even though much was beyond my knowledge base. I know that is a refrain for me with science books but it is true . Even so I get the opportunity to suggest that exploring can be gratifying.
And it is encouraging that some physicists are open about their own limitations with this challenging area of study including quantum theory, black holes.gravity, etc. Also it is interesting to learn that many scientists including Clegg are increasingly skeptical about string
Aug 21, 2017 rated it liked it
Liked the first part, got to 60% and then struggled to finish it. Clegg does a decent job of introducing basic concepts and I got a kick out of trying to figure out other base numbering systems but it's as if the subject itself runs out of gas. The book is written for a general audience so everything is well explained with no knowledge of math needed. I just lost interest and had to force myself to finish.
Nov 20, 2019 rated it really liked it
While I feel that Clegg failed to make a compelling discussion of question in the title of the book, he does present a fascinating discussion of the history and development of mathematics as we know them today and the driving forces that necessitated their development. As an engineer who has taken far more mathematics than I'll ever need, I've always wondered just how our modern approach to math took form.

The short answer to the title is: all models are wrong, but some are useful.
Gary Schroeder
Jul 06, 2017 rated it really liked it
SPOILER ALERT: Clegg thinks numbers are not inherently baked into the universe, but that math is a very useful tool created by clever humans. He only spends one chapter talking about this. Odd, given the title of the book...which would have been more appropriately titled "A History of Mathematics." Diverting and brief. Very low on the technical content, which was perfectly fine with me.
Sara G
May 20, 2018 rated it liked it
you don't get a lot of math history in math class so this was a fun read for a nerd like me. lots of food for my tired brain.... I may have to read it again.
Jana Light
Dec 28, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: thinking
I think this is a really important book for laypeople to build a better understanding of the world, physics, and truth. Clegg argues that math is not reality nor does it directly correlate to reality, but is rather a tool we have created to help us talk about and explore reality. Math is a language for talking about the world; it does not represent the world and is, in fact, more useful for building fantasy worlds and making fantastical constructs that somehow (almost magically) help illuminate ...more
Feb 14, 2017 rated it liked it
About one third understandable the rest is sleep inducing. Don't give up too early though.
Douglas Summers-Stay
Apr 16, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
This is an interesting question. To what extent is mathematics invented, and to what extent is it discovered? What properties of an idea make it count as "real"? One of the features of reality is that it is the same for anyone who looks at it (as opposed to hallucinations, for example, which are not real and only exist for one person). This aspect is true for mathematics as well as the outside world. On the other hand, some mathematical constructions feel very manmade-- they're more like program ...more
Feb 05, 2017 rated it really liked it
Well, yes they are; but sometimes the things we do with them are not.
Dec 29, 2016 rated it it was ok
Shelves: math
I enjoyed most of this explanation of numbers and math and the use of numbers and math in the real world.
Apr 01, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: w_nf_all, w_math
510 CLE

Summary: worth reading. It is simply development of math, a math history.
chap 12, 13, 14 take me a lot of time to read.
p262 numbers, I would suggest, are real at their most basic, but most of mathematics isn't. It's a fantasy world that sometimes mirrors and parallels our own, and as such can help provides with tools to help understand reality.

Chap 1 Counting Sheep?
Math is arbitrary?
A linguist may regard the 'one' as meaning 'one- no more and no less.' To those skilled in the art it may,
Alex Rondón Reggio
Jul 27, 2017 rated it really liked it
I Really enjoyed this book, it's mostly a book about the history of maths.
Jake Clarke
Oct 31, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: own
wonderful walk through of mathematics, with a particular focus on its interaction with physics, from counting goats to quarks. "The plural of anecdote is not data"
Dec 18, 2018 rated it really liked it
Mr Clegg does a nice job of simple examples making mathematics real; the book steps through the development of math, and consistently works on the question does math represent reality. That check makes the subject approachable, almost all the way to the end when quantum mechanics becomes impossible to describe simply. A well-written book.

His conclusion? Numbers are real; mathematics by itself does not have to be; and more and more in physics it seems disconnected, with the mathematical models w
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »

Readers also enjoyed

  • The Unnatural Inquirer (Nightside, #8)
  • Dr. Seuss's Beginner Book Collection (Cat in the Hat, One Fish Two Fish, Green Eggs and Ham, Hop on
  • Knocking on Heaven's Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World
  • Hell to Pay (Nightside, #7)
  • SAS Survival Handbook: The Ultimate Guide to Surviving Anywhere
  • Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth (Nightside, #6)
  • Higgs Discovery: The Power of Empty Space
  • Paths Not Taken (Nightside, #5)
  • Hex and the City (Nightside, #4)
  • Nightingale's Lament (Nightside, #3)
  • The Rules of Contagion: Why Things Spread - and Why They Stop
  • Agents of Light and Darkness (Nightside, #2)
  • The Dark Tower Series: The Gunslinger, the Drawing of the Three, the Waste Lands
  • Dark Nature: A Natural History of Evil
  • The Unlounging: From a Belly Full of Beer to a Craw Full of Time
  • The Club King: My Rise, Reign, and Fall in New York Nightlife
  • The Plus One
  • Something from the Nightside (Nightside, #1)
See similar books…
Brian's latest books, Ten Billion Tomorrows and How Many Moons does the Earth Have are now available to pre-order. He has written a range of other science titles, including the bestselling Inflight Science, The God Effect, Before the Big Bang, A Brief History of Infinity, Build Your Own Time Machine and Dice World.

Along with appearances at the Royal Institution in London he has spoken at venues fr

Related Articles

Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman know the radical life-changing power of a good friendship. The two launched their hit podcast Call Your Girlfriend ...
6 likes · 0 comments