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Unknown Quantity – John Derbyshire ***

There is something rather fascinating about the little quotes you see on a the cover of a book. Sometimes they are intriguing, sometimes banal. In this case of this particular book, I had to wonder if someone writing for New Scientist, who commented “even algebraphobes will struggle to fault” was reading the same book. To be fair, “struggle to fault” is such a suspiciously ugly phrase that it’s hard not to suspect that there was more to that sentence in the original form than meets the eye. Whatever – as it stands it is very misleading.
To be fair, John Derbyshire does intertwine the mathematical bits of this history of algebra with a bit of context, telling us about the people involved, and those bits work rather well, but the fact remains there is no way you can describe this as a popular maths book. The suspicions are immediately raised by the way the book is divided up into numbered sections. There’s nothing like seeing §3.2 to bring all the joy of reading a textbook flooding back. What joy? Well, no, there isn’t any, is there? Before long, however much he Derbyshire dresses this up by telling us that Cardano (say) was “‘a piece of work’ as we might say now”, nine readers out of ten will be either struggling or bored rigid. This simply isn’t the way to get maths across to a popular audience. Maybe he should read a touch of Hawking to get the idea that you can be quite erudite without leaving your reader totally baffled.
In principle I hope I could have understood the maths – in practice, I didn’t want to. I have only ever given up three books part way through. One of these was a novel that everyone tells me is a classic and wonderful, but I found childish and boring (Catch 22), so maybe it’s me. On the other hand it could be the book.
If you are a mathematician and are interested in algebra, this is a great book to get some historical context, something sadly lacking from much university teaching. If you’re not – I really wouldn’t bother. For a much more approachable history of algebra (with group theory and symmetry thrown in) see The Equation that Couldn’t be Solved.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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