A Royal Society research fellow takes the Riemann Hypothesis, reputedly the most difficult of all math problems, as the focus for his lively history of number theory.
Du Sautoy (Mathematics/Oxford) begins in 1900 with German mathematician David Hilbert's famous address to the International Congress of Mathematicians in Paris, where Hilbert offered 23 unsolved problems as challenges to his colleagues. Among them was the Reimann Hypothesis, which concerns the distribution of prime numbers; it is the only one still unsolved. Greek mathematicians knew that the primes are infinite in number and distributed randomly in the set of natural numbers. Two centuries ago, Carl Friedrich Gauss offered a formula to estimate how many primes lie below any given number; in 1859, Gauss's student, Bernhard Riemann, refined that estimate, based on the incredibly complex Zeta function, but died without proving his hypothesis. With a minimum of equations and mathematical symbols, du Sautoy outlines the progress each succeeding generation has made on the problem. Along the way, readers meet G.H. Hardy and J.E. Littlewood, the twin beacons of the Cambridge math department between the world wars; Ramanujan, the self-taught Indian clerk who claimed that his ideas were given to him by his family goddess; and Atle Selberg, who survived the Nazi occupation of Norway to become a leading light at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Studies. Alan Turing, the father of modern computers, tried to devise a program to attack the Riemann Hypothesis; now the primes are the key to cryptography. A Boston businessman has offered a million-dollar reward for a proof, although few mathematicians seem to need additional incentive to tackle the Everest of mathematical problems. Du Sautoy keeps the story moving and gives a clear sense of the way number theory is played in his accessible text. (See Karl Sabbagh’s The Riemann Hypothesis, p. 369, which covers similar territory but spotlights current mathematicians searching for a Riemann proof.)
A must for math buffs.