Skip to main content

A Brief History of Mathematical Thought - Luke Heaton ***

I had great hopes at the start of this book that we'd get a meaty but approachable history of the development of mathematics. When describing the origins of number, arithmetic and mathematical processes the opening section is pitched well, but things go downhill when we get to detailed mathematical exposition.

The problem may be that Luke Heaton is a plant scientist, which may have prepared him better for using maths than for explaining it. If we take, for instance, his explanation of the demonstration that the square root of two is irrational, I was lost after about two lines. As soon as Heaton gets into mathematical detail, his fluency and readability are lost.

There's a central chunk of the book where the mathematical content seems too heavy for the way the contextual text is written. We then get back onto more effective ground when dealing with logic and Turing's work, before diving back into rather more impenetrable territory.

One slight concern is that, in talking about Turing, Heaton presents the largely discredited idea that Turing committed suicide by eating a poisoned apple, laying the blame for this on his arrest and 'treatment' for homosexuality, a narrative that doesn't stand up (it's a shame the author didn't have a chance to read The Turing Guide). I suspect this is a one-off and much of the mathematical history is fine.

I didn't realise until I'd finished it that it has an interesting publishing history. It was initially part of the same Robinson published series as my A Brief History of Infinity, but this is a US hardback edition, just brought out by OUP. This was, then, a curate's egg book for me. I really enjoyed it when it was dealing with history and philosophy of maths, but found the technical explanations, even of mathematics I understand perfectly well, hard to follow.


Paperback (US hardback):  

Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

How to Drive a Nuclear Reactor - Colin Tucker ****

How To Drive A Nuclear Reactor does exactly what it says on the tin. The book is a general overview of nuclear reactors. From the basic principles that make them work through to what buttons to press in what order (and of course how and why they can go wrong).Nuclear power could be a good step on the path to a greener energy future, but there is a lot of understandable fear. This book can give some idea of what an incredible feat of both science and engineering one of these machines is and, hopefully, make anyone reading it feel far more comfortable about them.The book presents information about everything, almost down to the literal nuts and bolts, giving you a near complete understanding of how a nuclear works. From putting in the fuel to getting out the power and down from the control panel to the construction material. Everything you could ever want to know is here. By the end you'll likely feel ready to walk into a control room and get started (do not try doing this, nuclear …

Being Mortal - Atul Gawande ****

I heard recently that the local geriatric ward puts a photograph of the patient in his or her prime by each bed. The aim is to help staff to treat their patients as individuals, but it makes me uneasy. Do these people only matter because of what they were, not what they are? Because once they stood proud and handsome in their uniform, or looked lovely on their wedding day?

Professor Atul Gawande has the problem surgically excised and laid out for inspection in one of his unflinching but compassionate case studies:

‘What bothered Shelley was how little curiosity the staff members seemed to have about what Lou cared about in his life and what he had been forced to forfeit... They might have called the service they provided assisted living, but no-one seemed to think it was their job to actually assist him with living – to figure out how to sustain the connection and joys that most mattered to him.’

Gawande is an eminent surgeon. As a young resident he displayed little overt emotion when hi…

Twenty Worlds - Niall Deacon *****

This is a truly entertaining and informative book, but the reason I’m giving it the full five stars has as much to do with the refreshing novelty of the author’s style as anything else. There’s novelty in the subject-matter too – the wide variety of recently discovered exoplanets orbiting other stars – but even so this is the third book on the topic that I’ve read. The first two were a lot less fun to read, and (without naming and shaming the authors) it’s worth a brief diversion to explain why.The first author was a university professor with a vast knowledge of the subject, who seemed determined to convey the entirety of that knowledge without stopping to think whether it was interesting or necessary for a general audience. The second author – another academic – took a different but equally tedious approach, with a plodding chronological account that focused as much on the dull routine of the scientists involved as on their work.Niall Deacon doesn’t make either of those mistakes. He’…