“Mathematics is not a careful march down a well-cleared highway, but a journey into a strange wilderness, where the explorers often get lost.”
-- Mathematics historian W. S. Anglin From the internationally bestselling author of Fermat's Last Theorem comes a landmark publication on the eccentric lives of the foremost mathematicians in history..From Archimedes' eureka moment to Alexander Grothendieck's seclusion in the Pyrenees, bestselling author Amir Aczel selects the most compelling stories in the history of mathematics, creating a colorful narrative that explores the quirky personalities behind some of the most groundbreaking, enduring theorems.
This is not your dry “college textbook” account of mathematical history; it bristles with tales of duels, battlefield heroism, flamboyant arrogance, pranks, secret societies, imprisonment, feuds, theft, and some very costly errors of judgment. (Clearly, genius doesn't guarantee street smarts.) Ultimately, readers will come away entertained, and with a newfound appreciation of the tenacity, complexity, eccentricity, and brilliance of the mathematical genius.
Prolific science writer Aczel offers a grab bag of biographical sketches of important mathematicians: starting with the "rope-pullers" in ancient Egypt, who determined property lines for farmers' fields after the Nile floods receded each spring. Included is the story of Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, first in a long line of mathematicians and scientists (Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, and Cantor to name a few) whose groundbreaking work earned professional scorn and charges of heresy. During Europe's Dark Ages, progress came from Arabs like Al-Khwarizmi, the man who popularized algebra and the numerals we use today. Some of the history is muddled: Aczel attributes the invention of calculus to both Gottfried Leibniz and Isaac Newton, without clarifying how their two approaches differed. Thanks to better documentation, more recent figures have much richer biographies, but most of Aczel's synopses lack real eccentricity, which comes as a disappointment after he enthuses about math's "fascinating subculture with its own peculiarities and idiosyncrasies" in the preface. The book works best as an episodic overview of important names in the field and the context in which they worked.