The Number Devil by Hans Magnus Enzensberger Short Summary

The Number Devil The Number Devil – A Mathematical Adventure, by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, begins with a young boy named Robert who suffers from reoccurring nightmares. Whether he’s getting slurped up by a giant fish, sliding down an endless slide into a black hole, or falling into a raging river, his incredibly detailed dreams always seem to have a negative effect on him. Robert’s nightmares either frighten him, make him angry, or disappoint him. His one wish is to never dream again; however, instead of the nightmares coming to a halt, his dreams take a turn for the weird.

Instead of falling down holes and such, he meets the Number Devil. Using giant furry calculators, piles of coconuts, electronic glass boxes, and an endless amount of scrolling paper (just to name a few), the Number Devil introduces Robert to several different concepts of numeracy. Over the course of twelve dreams, Robert is taken further and further into mathematical theories where he eventually winds up marveling at just what numbers can do. The first night the Number Devil appears in Robert’s dream, he is not happy.

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Robert was relieved to finally escape his usual nightmares, but was not happy to stumble across a little red man who only wanted to talk about numbers. The first time Robert and the Number Devil meet, the Number Devil teaches Robert that numbers do not have to be complicated. As the Number Devil taught Robert, I learned that if someone is “afraid” of big numbers, all they have to do is start with the number one and keep going (p. 15). The Number Devil explains, “If you’re afraid of [five million], all you have to do is start with 1+1… until you come to five million” (p. 15).

I also learned the meaning of the word ‘indefinite’ and how it is related to the number one. In the second dream, Robert arrives in a land of trees shaped like the number one and flies buzzing around shaped like the numbers two through nine. The Number Devil points out that there is no zero in the mix. I learned from him that the when the Romans created their number system, they did not use a zero, and that is why it is so complicated. He then taught the connection between zero and subtraction. He explained how zero is used in powers and also how it is used in place value.

After explaining it all, the Number Devil excitedly told Robert, “Rejoice my boy, for you are much better off than the Romans… with the help of your friend zero” (p. 41). In time, Robert came to prefer the Number Devil over his other dreams, and even began looking forward to seeing him again. In the third dream, the Number Devil taught about division and remainders. He proved why dividing by zero is “forbidden” (p. 54). He taught Robert about prime numbers, which he referred to as “prima donnas,” because he said, “from the very first, they’ve caused mathematicians no end of trouble” (p. 5). The fourth dream introduced ‘taking the square root,’ but the Number Devil insisted on referring to the phrase as, “taking the rutabaga… as if we were pulling one of those fine root vegetables out of the ground” (p. 76) He also taught about “unreasonable numbers” (irrational numbers), saying, “Don’t go thinking that unreasonable numbers are a rarity. Quite the contrary… they’re like sand on the beach, more common even than the other kind” (p. 83) The fifth dream taught about “triangle numbers” and all the different ways they can be used and referred back to (p. 93).

The Number Devil used coconuts as an example. Then, using ice cubes as an example, he taught quadrangle numbers. In the sixth dream, the Number Devil tells Robert about ‘Number Heaven,’ where his bosses reign. His favorite is Fibonacci. He then teaches the Fibonacci pattern, using rabbit’s reproductive cycle as his example. In the seventh dream, the Number Devil instructed Robert to build a pyramid (triangle) out of electronic glass boxes. On each cube, they wrote the sum of the cubes directly above it. I learned that, “the numbers on the sides will all be ones no matter how far down we go.

And that I can fill in the numbers in the next diagonal rows on either side with perfectly normal numbers: 1,2,3,4… ” (p. 131). Using the pyramid I discovered tricks to add triangle numbers, tricks on 2^x, and tricks with Fibonacci numbers. The eighth dream taught about the different possibilities a certain number of things could be. The Number Devil used how many different ways a certain number of students could sit in a certain number of desks for his example. In the ninth dream, Robert learns that there are an infinite amount of ordinary numbers accompanied by an infinite amount of odd numbers.

He then taught Robert about fractions, and that those too are indeed infinite. In the tenth dream, the Number Devil taught the significance of the number 6. 18. I learned how this number is related to the Fibonacci numbers, the pentagon shape, and the star shape. The number devil then taught that the formula Dots + Spaces + # of Lines = 1 when pertaining to flat figure shapes. He also taught that Dots + Spaces + # of Lines = 2 when working with 3D shapes. The eleventh dream teaches that, “Every extraordinary number, be it fourteen or fourteen billion, may be followed by one and only one number, namely, that number plus one. That] a point may not be divided, because it has no area, [and] that two points on an even plane may be connected by only one line, which then continues endlessly in both directions” (p. 219). The book concludes with Robert visiting Number Heaven/Hell with the Number Devil. They visit different mathmeticians and recount all they have previously learned. Robert eventually becomes an “apprentice” in “The Order of Pythagorus” and learns to enjoy numbers(p. 248). This book influenced my future teaching by acknowledging that there is a fun way to do math.

It is reassuring knowing that is math is not a students strongest suit, but reading is, that there is a way to get them interested as well. I would use The Number Devil – A Mathematical Adventure in my classroom by possibly reading a chapter to the students in alliance with the math I was teaching at the moment. This book opened up my eyes to a unique, more fairytale-like perspective on math. Like the Number Devil said, “[Numbers] really are fantastic creatures. In fact, there’s no such thing as an ordinary number” (p. 75). Enzensberger, Hans Magnus. , and Rotraut Susanne. Berner. The Number Devil. London: Granta, 2000. Print.

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