Saturday, February 23, 2019

Book review: A Brief History of Mathematics

Review of BBC Audio and Marcus du Sautoy's non-fiction title, A Brief History of Mathematics

Blurb: This ten-part history of mathematics reveals the personalities behind the calculations: the passions and rivalries of mathematicians struggling to get their ideas heard. Professor Marcus du Sautoy shows how these masters of abstraction find a role in the real world and proves that mathematics is the driving force behind modern science. He explores the relationship between Newton and Leibniz, the men behind the calculus; and, looks at how the mathematics that Euler invented 200 years ago paved the way for the internet and discovers how Fourier transformed our understanding of heat, light and sound. In addition, he finds out how Galois’ mathematics describes the particles that make up our universe, how Gaussian distribution underpins modern medicine, and how Riemann’s maths helped Einstein with his theory of relativity. Finally, he introduces Cantor, who discovered infinite numbers; Poincare, whose work gave rise to chaos theory; and, G.H. Hardy, whose work inspired the millions of codes that help to keep the internet safe, and Nicolas Bourbaki, the mathematician who never was. The BBC Radio 4 series looking at the people who shaped modern mathematics, written and presented by Marcus du Sautoy.

Review: I am not a mathematician. I am not a scientist. I have studied a little of both but by and large my interest is a layman’s one. I am, however, fascinated with history in all its forms, including the history of science, technology, medicine and – of course – mathematics.

‘Beauty’, ‘elegance’ and ‘charm’ are not words you would necessarily associate with this discipline but Marcus du Sautoy uses all of them and with great enthusiasm. I’ve thought of numbers and theories as many things but I’m not sure I’d ever considered that to a mathematician or scientist they could be beautiful. Yet I found it almost impossible not to get swept away on his love of numbers and how they can be used, manipulated and worked to bring almost miraculous advantages to our lives.

This was an excellent history of mathematics – short enough to remain fascinating to readers who don’t want to explore the complexities of this area and simple enough for a layman to understand, without denigrating the hard work of the many talented and awe-inspiring geniuses mentioned within.

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Donna Brown is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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