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Euclid’s Window

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Mathematics seem to have become more popular ever since a book has been written about the story behind the proof of Fermat's last theorem. People don't only start thinking that mathematics can make good stories but also start to get the clue that maths isn't all about numbers. They also seem to think that every math department has some kind of afternoon tea gathering due to the aforementioned book. Sadly that's not true. Of course I consider maths being more popular a good thing. It stops people having this 'What are you guys doing anyway?' attitude.

On the other hand, I am always a bit sceptical about 'popular' science books or articles. Frequently they seem to fail to communicate the topic adequately. Either by being too rough on the topic or by being too hard for the 'general public' audience without any prior knowledge of the subject. Even the – in my opinion well written – A Brief History of Time is said to be competition to the bible as far as bought but essentially unread copies are concerned. And that's not a hard book. Brian Greenes excellent The Elegant Universe is by far more detailed and harder to read. It still sold many copies, most of which probably ended up on coffee tables.

Cover of Euclid's Window Thus I wasn't too enthusiastic when I saw Leonard Mlodinow's Euclid's Window in the Warwick bookstore in March. But they had a special offer on it, so I couldn't resist picking up a copy of a popular science book on the story of geometry. It's my topic after all. Now I got finally round to reading it and I think it's worth reading and worth recommending. If you have a casual interest in mathematics and want to get a rough idea of what happened in geometry in the past millennia along with having a good read, this is the book to get.

To make a good narrative, Mlodinow tells the stories of people – note that the book is subtitled The Story of Geometry rather than History. Each chapter is entitled The Story of ... with the respective name following. As he limits himself to five chapters, those people are carefully chosen to be those with the most interesting stories. Also, a nice trait, he doesn't exclusively treat 'pure' mathematics but also includes physics as they motivate and are motivated by geometry.

The first four chapters are on Euclid, Descartes, Gauß and Einstein. The last one is on Witten and seems a bit like bonus material that I was delighted to see: While Witten's work still has to stand the test of time in the way that Einstein's or Gauß' has, he is a candidate for someone who pushed new concepts in the interaction of mathematics and physics. The chapter gives a nice view on current topics and might be a motivation to read Brian Greene's book.

While the chapters seem to be dedicated to those few people, this doesn't mean we don't get to read about the other people who made significant contributions: From Pythagoras to Archimedes, from Occam to Newton, from Riemann – strangely called Georg in the book, even though, despite him technincally being Georg Friedrich Bernhard, he is usually known as Bernhard – to Hilbert, from Clifford to Maxwell, from Gell-Mann to Seiberg there's a lot of name-dropping going on. Justified name-dropping, I should add.

P.S. Funny to see how the UK edition of the book has a much more sympathetic and the U.S. edition has a much more sophisticated cover.

Bookmark: 19-03-2003 flight FR036 London Stansted to Stanjefjord.

[Buy at amazon .com, .uk, .de]

July 26, 2003, 21:14

Tagged as book, leonard mlodinow, maths.

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