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A History of Pi 19th ed. Edition

3.9 out of 5 stars 94 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0312381851
ISBN-10: 0312381859
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Editorial Reviews

Review

“A pure delight . . . Entirely offbeat, which gives it its charm.” ―The Denver Post

“A very readable account.” ―Science

“A cheerful work.” ―Scientific American

From the Back Cover

The history of pi, says the author, though a small part of the history of mathematics, is nevertheless a mirror of the history of man. Petr Beckmann holds up this mirror, giving the background of the times when pi made progress and also when it did not, because science was being stifled by militarism or religious fanaticism. The mathematical level of this book is flexible, and there is plenty for readers of all ages and interests.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press; 19th ed. edition (July 15, 1976)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312381859
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312381851
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (94 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #252,556 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
This book is not about Pi per se - it is a book about the history of mathematics, especially western math, with lots of opinions by the author, built around the example of Pi.
Readers who are interested in Pi would be disappointed, as they would expect a lot more material about Pi. I can see how the name of the book would mislead the buyers of this book in this way.
As a book about the history of math, I think it is a very good book - it covers the time span from the greeks to the modern era, focusing on western civilization (e.g. the far and middle east are mentioned very little), with chapters about the heavy weight mathematicians of the time. The author makes his opinions clearly and at some length, and I think he got quite a few good points.
The math is a bit difficult for a popular science book, and I get the impression the author just threw in a bit of math just as illustrations to main theme of the history of math and not in order to give the reader some insights and in-depth understanding.
So, if you want a book about the history of math in the west with the author's opinions and commentary, I recommend this book to you. But if you want a book about Pi, by all means skip this book.
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Format: Paperback
The thematic dissonance Dr. Beckmann serves up in this ostensible history of science treatise starts off very amusing, grows annoying towards the middle and ends up with you shopping for some other book on pi. As I finished the first chapter, I began to wonder whether other readers had noticed the bait-and-switch: a manuscript with seemingly scholarly intentions had been shanghaied by a cranky technocrat into service for a diatribe against everything from Aristotle to fascism.
The real let-down came several chapters further on. I largely agree with the political and historiographical assessments Dr. Beckmann preaches in his book: yes, Aristotle was a scientific dullard now lauded by posterity; yes, the Romans were mathematical morons who didn't even understand the hydrodynamics of their own aqueducts; yes, National Socialism was bad. I'll even concede that Dr. Beckmann's sardonic prose sometimes made the ubiquitous tangents an entertaining diversion. Still and all, what about pi? This is by far the tersest mathematical presentation of difficult ideas I have ever seen in a popular science text. Some of the explanations about mathematical reasoning are positively opaque --- but by the end you're grateful when there's any explanation at all.
I have to entertain the uncomfortable possibility that Dr. Beckmann omitted a thorough discussion of the technical points so that he could cram the proofs as well as his ideological agenda into a fixed number of words.
"A History of Pi", to give due credit, does touch on the major historical events in the study of this beautiful number (as long as you're prepared to forgive the limited coverage of computational developments, given the book's age).
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Format: Paperback
My kind of book: A seemingly mundane subject that packs a punch. Those expecting an exhaustive mathematical treatise should remember that this is a HISTORY of pi, including the events and people that colored it. Beckmann is opinionated, and thankfully so! History is a story composed of characters that either advance or impede human progress, and Beckmann shines the spotlight on both, heaping scorn and reverence without regard to who's ox is being gored. In the process, he manages to annoy all the right groups (organized religion, fascists, communists) making him unpopular with some, but rare is the factual rebuttal to any of his charges. Indeed, the primary complaint seems not to be that he's wrong but that he's particularly unforgiving of history's morons. There's enough conceptual math and intriguing history to please both mathematicians and historians, particularly those tired of the politically correct drivel that so permeates popular science today. A truly great read.
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Format: Paperback
While this "history of Pi" presents a satisfactory accounting of the history of mathematics in a fairly enjoyable way, the author's tangents must relegate it to the b-string of math-oriented popular books. While I didn't find the lack of detailed proofs problematic, the compromise he attempts to find between proof-heavy math book and light popular book results in a rather schizophrenic treatment of some very interesting and relevant topics (such as continued fractions). He fails, too, to pursue the implications those useless digits of Pi have for our understanding of the universe, though perhaps when the book was written these implications weren't quite so obvious.
Many have described the opinion-heavy style of Dr. Beckmann; I only wish to add that his opinions are handed out in the classical Objectivist style. That is, they're in a tone meant to make the reader feel complicit in their sentiment and far above any reproach they might be dealing. For example, his complaints about the fledgling environmental movement neglect any facts and refer to activists as "frustrated housewives on messianic trips." This sort of dismissal out-of-hand is used on Aristotle, on the Romans, on the Soviets -- all based on few factual examples. While I *agree* with him on the great flaws of Aristotle (at least as a scientist and mathematician), on the Romans (though he apparently regards George Bernard Shaw's "Caesar and Cleopatra" as historically accurate enough from which to quote Julius Caesar), and on the Soviets (though Oppenheimer and Turing didn't get much fair treatment on "our" side of the Iron Curtain), I find this treatment distracting.
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