‘Visions of Numberland’ by Alex Bellos and Edmund Harriss


‘Visions of Numberland’ by Alex Bellos and Edmund Harriss takes the reader on a mystical journey through the mysteries and of mathematics in a fun twist on the bewildering adult colouring book market. Who said colouring needs to be relaxing?


The adult colouring book market is a strange one. Early last year, five of the top ten books listed on retail giant Amazon’s bestseller list were adult colouring books. This poses the question: what on earth are people doing with their lives? When you’ve spent a long hard day at the office it can be all too easy to take feelings of stress home with you, but does the answer really lie in resorting to simpler, more childish times?

Some behaviourists and more than a few adult-colouring book fanatics seem to think so, but I am unconvinced. I’ve tried out a few of these books, and they can be quite fun, but are hardly the perfect solution to an overworked millennial. Firstly, you need to try and actually find the time to sit down and colour. I don’t know about you, but between the all important glass of red and my commitment to vegetating in front of The Walking Dead with my significant other, my evening schedule is pretty tight…

Still, I took some time out this week to try out a new adult colouring book that has graced Amazon’s ever-growing bookshelves. ‘Visions In Numberland’ by Alex Bellos and Edmund Harriss promises the would-be colourer a “colouring journey through the mysteries of maths”, but is it really any different from the bewildering array of adult colouring books already on offer?

Short answer: yes, if not we wouldn’t really be featuring it in and engineering and technology publication, would we?

This book is different from the rest. It is so very, very different. Where traditional adult colouring books offer freedom and relaxation to work through inner stress, this book serves as a tour of some of the most fundamental discoveries in the field of mathematics, in which the reader is invited to explore them through colour and imagery.

Ultimately though, there is no freedom, and there is certainly no relaxation.

On my first visit to Numberland I visited the ‘Curve of Pursuit’ – that is, a path taken by a point that is always moving towards another point. The authors create the image of four dogs standing in each corner of a square room, if each dog races towards the dog that is anticlockwise from it, so that each dog is running at the same speed and at all times running towards its quarry along a straight line, the dogs will follow a logarithmic spiral.

The image seen below is my attempt to colour in a collage of several of the so-called ‘canine chases’. Beautiful isn’t it? I’d have loved to have finished it, I’m sure the result would have been quite spectacular, but this was as much as I could possibly complete in one go without passing out. By the time I put my pencil down to take a, quite well-deserved, break I was seeing spots.


Perhaps it was the perfectionist in me, but there was no way I could colour in the image in anything other than logical steps and colours, which sort of blew the ‘relaxing’ aspect of colouring right out of the water. It felt more like a mission I needed to complete. Seeing the image emerge was pretty satisfying though, once I got past the stress of falling into a mathematical borehole.

I enlisted some help from one of the other editorial members of E&T, who also found the whole experience a little stressful. They did actually manage to finish theirs though, and so we have below an elegantly coloured pattern of 14 pointed stars placed on a grid made up from two varieties of rhombus and entitled ‘Diamonds in the Sky’.


Travelling though the book reveals firm mathematical darlings like arithmetic and geometry, as well as more abstract modern examples including graph theory and dynamical systems, and gives the reader the opportunity to colour in existing patterns, as well as create their own using relatively easy-to-follow guidelines. My personal favourite is a task in which a series of concentric pentagons are arranged in a convex spiral serving to create a hall-of-mirrors-esque illustrated algorithm – a strikingly simple step-by-step guide to one of the most complex mathematical systems.

I would include a picture, but as I said, the guidelines are only ‘relatively’ easy to follow.

Stress and wonderment aside, there was one thing I found slightly troubling but ultimately endearing about this book. A mistake. How humbling that a colouring book which shows the universe through the eyes of the world’s greatest mathematicians falls prey to one of the most human characteristics. I do hope this wasn’t put there as a test, but if it was I spotted it. The rogue number 12882 highlighted in the image below has no place in that rectangle on Pascal’s triangle, and should of course be 8326 like its partner in the seventh hexagon across – and yes, ladies and gents, I did discover this by colouring in all the numbers with a ‘6’  using the same colour and noticing a discrepancy.


My personal feelings towards ‘Visions of Numberland’ are mixed. It’s a fun approach to some really fascinating theories which can be approached without any prior knowledge to mathematical systems and the images are nothing short of spectacular, but some of the tasks take a lot of commitment to complete and could well leave your mind buzzing. I’m inclined to want to read the book, and learn more about the mathematical patterns, but without actually doing any more colouring in.

This could be one for the maths-lover in your life, or someone who has outgrown standard adult colouring books, and wants to take on something a little more challenging. Whatever you do, though, don’t buy this book thinking it will help you to unwind; if you do you could set yourself on track for a full-on nervous breakdown.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine

‘Man of Iron: Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain’ by Julian Glover

A new biography of one of Britain’s greatest engineers, whose work is still with us today.

9781408837467If ever a man could give hope to those of humble origins it is Thomas Telford. Born into a lowly shepherding family, in a ramshackle farmhouse in the hills of Dumfriesshire, Telford never knew his father, and at school succeeded in learning little more than the basics of the ‘three R’s’. Yet, despite this modest beginning, he went on to become one of Britain’s greatest engineers. So, what’s his story?

In ‘Man of Iron: Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain’, the first comprehensive modern biography of Telford, journalist Julian Glover draws on historical anecdotes, letters, records, reports and contemporary accounts to provide a strikingly clear portrait of the man who helped shape Britain. A simple, smiling boy from the south of Scotland, known affectionately as ‘Laughing Tam’, who despite his fame and success, never forgot his roots.

Born in 1757, a time when the industrial revolution was beginning to sweep through Britain, Telford left school at the age of 14 and was apprenticed to a stonemason. The piecemeal work of building new roads and farmhouses on a local estate inspired Telford’s initial interest in structural engineering. He began studying at night, determined to learn all there was to know about construction.

This passion formed a career that spanned almost eight decades. It helped create the basic building blocks of Britain, constructing roads, bridges and aqueducts, facilitating trade and renovating the country for a time of industrial transformation.

Among his most remarkable work was the design of the Menai Bridge in  north Wales, one of the first structures based on the suspension principle. It spanned 180m – the longest such bridge of the era. He was one of the first British engineers to trial such a procedure. At the time, his creations were considered some of the most remarkable in Europe, but perhaps what is most notable is that almost all of his work remains standing – and in use – to this day.

While his influence on the backbone of Britain is obvious, the person behind the engineer is less known, and for some, this may be the most interesting aspect of this book. Telford was a complex man, as his interests and talents were not limited to engineering. While contributing to the industrialisation of Britain, he was also fascinated by the natural landscape, and was actually a keen poet. In his musings, he wrote of the ‘artificial joy’ of towns, preferring the quiet solitude of the country. It may seem somewhat oxymoronic, but even as he built the structures that supported urban life, he did so with a passion to enhance the countryside, not replace it.

The influence of Telford across Britain is well recognised and celebrated. The Institution of Civil Engineers, of which Telford was the first president, continues to celebrate the legacy of his work long after his death. ‘Man of Iron’ keeps with this culture of recognition and celebration by revealing the history of Telford for all to understand and enjoy. It is a beautifully written biography, reading almost as a work of classic literature, rather than a piece of non-fiction.

Glover spares no words in greatly detailing every aspect of Telford’s life, from his poverty-stricken yet somewhat idyllic childhood in the green woods of the Scottish countryside to his vibrant life travelling and working across the British Isles. It is just as easy to envisage a grubby-faced but smiling young Telford stumbling over bracken-rich fields of Eskdale as it is to recall the wondrous unveiling of his remarkable works of civil engineering.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine.