His real name is Ali Iezid Izz-Edim Ibn Salim Hank Malba Tahan, and he wrote in Arabic in the style favoured by the famed Arabian Knights. His short stories were translated into Portuguese, and this book has mathematical themes. It is a reader’s delight with the logic problems that ‘the man who counts’ faces and solves. Just to entice the reader this is how the book, set in 13th century Arabia draws you in…
“In the name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, The Most Merciful! I was on the Baghdad road, returning at my camel’s slow pace from an excursion to the famous city of Samarra, on the banks of the Tigris, when I saw a modestly dressed traveller, sitting on a rock, who looked like he was recuperating from a voyage. I was about to offer the perfunctory salaam of travellers when, to my great surprise, he rose and said ceremoniously, “One million, four hundred and twenty-three thousand, seven hundred and forty-five.” He quickly sat down and lapsed into silence, his head resting in his hands, as if he were absorbed in meditation. I stopped at some distance and stood watching him, as if he were a historic monument to the legendary past. A few moments later, the man again rose to his feet and. in a clear, deliberate voice, called out another, equally fabulous number, “Two million, thirty and twenty-one thousand, eight hundred and sixty-six.”
The above is a magic square, and “After studying both objects carefully, the Man Who Counted spoke as follows: ‘This interesting square of numbers the calligrapher left behind is what we call a magic square. Let us take a square and divide it up into four or nine or 16 equal boxes. Put a number in each of these boxes. When the sum of the numbers in any line or column or diagonal always adds up to the same result, we have a magic square… The numbers in the separate boxes must all be different. It is impossible to construct a magic square with only four boxes.'” His math expertise range from dividing the inheritance of 35 camels among 3 sons in the proportion of 1/2, 1/3 and 1/9 to asking 3 questions of 5 veiled girls to find out which of them ad blue eyes and who had black. I remember growing up on such stories and here I find them all gathered in one book, that fires my imagination and re ignites my drive to learn more. How can you “arrange ten soldiers in five rows in such a way that each row has four soldiers?”
In a romantic setting, with vizers and princes and against the background of Islamic tradition of learning, we are challenged to solve logical math problems, that the man who counts needs only a moment to simplify and produce results. For example do you know the magic of the number 4? Read the book to find out.
Malba Tahan does not and never existed, he was the pen-name of Julio Cesar de Mello e Souza, a maths teacher from Rio de Janeiro. “His love of maths had led him to a fascination with Islamic science and he decided to write stories about ancient Arabia using the nom de plume Malba Tahan. He died in 1974, by which time he had sold more than a million books in Brazil. The Man Who Counted remains his most famous, and it is still in print. ” Enough said, read the book. Below is a link to download it for free.
Archimedes of Syracus (287-212 B. C. E) says, “There are things which seem incredible to most men who have not studied Mathematics.”
Issac Newton says, “Truth is ever to be found in the simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.”
And finally, Al-Khawarizimi the father of Algebra, considered his work as worship to God. I leave you with this thought…