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INFINITE ASCENT by David Berlinski Kirkus Star


A Short History of Mathematics

by David Berlinski

Pub Date: Sept. 13th, 2005
ISBN: 0-679-64234-X
Publisher: Modern Library

Not a formal history of math so much as a “good parts” version of that history.

After a nod to earlier civilizations, Berlinski (A Tour of the Calculus, 1995) begins with the Greeks—in particular, with Pythagoras and Euclid. The Greeks' sheer fascination with numbers and geometrical shapes, and their determination to construct logical proofs of their discoveries, set them apart from all earlier schools of mathematical thought. This questing spirit died out with the more pragmatic Romans, and Christian Europe had little more interest in pure math until the Renaissance. Then the introduction of Arabic numerals, and of the Greek mathematical discoveries kept alive by Arabic scholars, set off a new interest in math. Descartes learned how to map equations on a plane, and Newton and Leibniz independently created what Berlinksi considers one of the two key ideas of Western science: the calculus. Further progress involved moving from the simple counting numbers every child knows: Complex numbers, involving the square roots of negatives, were understood by Leonhard Euler; group theory was jotted down by the young French genius Galois the night before he died in a senseless duel; Lobachevsky and Riemann showed that there were consistent alternatives to Euclid's common-sense geometry; and Cantor opened the doors to infinity, before which all previous mathematicians had halted in fear of their sanity. The 20th century contributed Gödel’s proof that no self-contained logical system can be both complete and consistent, as well as the algorithm, a tool that ranks with the calculus for sheer power. Despite a sometimes condescending tone, Berlinski spins his narrative clearly, colorfully and with surprising thoroughness in such a brief treatment.

Novices may be overwhelmed, but for the mathematically inclined, this is a real treat.