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In Pursuit of the Unknown: 17 Equations That Changed the World Hardcover – March 13, 2012

4.3 out of 5 stars 66 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


Publishers Weekly

“Stewart shares his enthusiasm as well as his knowledge in this tour of ground-breaking equations and the research they supported…. An entertaining and illuminating collection of curious facts and histories suitable for random dipping-in or reading straight through.”

Kirkus Reviews

“Stewart provides clear, cogent explanations of how the equations work without burdening the reader with cumbersome derivations…. He gives a fascinating explanation of how Newton’s laws, when extended to three-body problems, are still used by NASA to calculate the best route from Earth to Mars and have laid the basis for chaos theory. Throughout, Stewart’s style is felicitous.”

“Seemingly basic equations have enabled us to predict eclipses, engineer earthquake-proof buildings, and invent the refrigerator. In this lively volume, mathematician Ian Stewart delves into 17 equations that shape our daily existence, including those dreamed up by the likes of Einstein, Newton, and Erwin Schrödinger.”
“Stewart is the finest living math popularizer – a writer who can tackle eye-spraining mathematical topics approachably, and yet dazzle hard-core nerds with new and surprising information. It is hard not to get your money’s worth from him, and in a book like this he is at his best because of the very wide ground covered.”
Library Journal
“Stewart’s expertise and his well-developed style (enhanced by a nice sense of humor) make for enjoyable reading…. [A] worthwhile and entertaining book, accessible to all readers. Recommended for anyone interested in the influence of mathematics on the development of science and on the emergence of our current technology-driven society.”

Washington Independent Review of Books

“Stewart has managed to produce a remarkably readable, informative and entertaining volume on a subject about which few are as well informed as they would like to be.”

New York Journal of Books

“Stewart is a genius in the way he conveys his excitement and sense of wonder…. He has that valuable grasp of not only what it takes to make equations interesting, but also to make science cool.”


Steve Mirsky, Scientific American

“[Stewart] takes the reader on an engaging tour of vital math for a modern world…. I highly recommend Stewart’s wonderfully accessible book.”

Physics Today
In Pursuit of the Unknown is an interesting and highly entertaining book. It would make a great gift for a bright high school grandchild who has expressed interest in a technical life, or for a physicist’s own secret reading.”

About the Author

Ian Stewart is Emeritus Professor of Mathematics and active researcher at the University of Warwick. He is also a regular research visitor at the University of Houston, the Institute of Mathematics and Its Applications in Minneapolis, and the Santa Fe institute. His writing has appeared in New Scientist, Discover, Scientific American, and many newspapers in the U.K. and U.S. He lives in Coventry, England.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; First Edition first Printing edition (March 13, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465029736
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465029730
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (66 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #221,121 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
What could be more boring than mathematical equations? The majority of folks would be hard pressed to find something to answer that hypothetical query. Myself included :) I'll be honest, I'm a math minor and I picked up this book on a whim in a bookstore thinking to myself "Now why would anyone want to write or _buy_ a book on 17 equations?" I flipped through it and immediately knew that I had to consume the rest of this book.

What Stewart is able to do is to take these 17 equations that manifest in everything we do, everything we observe, every bit of space around us and bring life to them. To be clear, this is more a book about history than pure math, but there is no doubt that these 17 core equations are at the heart of the book. He presents the opening of each chapter with a concise summary of these equations in laymen's terms that helps immensely in revealing the underlying nature of the equations and then goes into the history of the creation (discovery?) of each of these equations and it's been an eye-opening read.

As an example, having majored in computer science, I worked constantly with logarithms and natural logs (there's lumber joke here somewhere) but never once understood the nature of logarithms. How did they come about? Why do they exist? What problem do they address? Just what in the heck _is_ a logarithm? I knew them only in the abstract -- as operations that yielded a result; I knew them as a general pattern but not the nature of the logarithm. The second chapter simply blew me away with the clarity and simplicity with which Stewart was able to pull back the covers on what logarithms actually mean -- there's actually a very good reason why they're called logs.
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Format: Hardcover
The mathematician Ian Stewart knows the famous story about equations versus book sales. Stephen Hawking's publisher told him that every equation published in _A Brief History of Time_ would halve the number of books sold. One equation got in: E = mc^2, and maybe it really did cut the sales of the book by half. If this rule is true, Stewart is in real trouble with his newest book, _In Pursuit of the Unknown: 17 Equations That Changed the World_ (Basic Books). Readers who know his work, however, know that they are in good hands. Stewart has undoubtedly written mathematical papers that would be over the heads of us other mortals, but his books for the public on the problems, range, and philosophy of mathematics are clear, funny, entertaining, and educational. His seventeen chapters include some simple equations that everyone knows; that E = mc^2 is here, simple to write and to memorize, but pointing to complexities that most of us cannot easily comprehend, even a hundred or so years after it was developed. Some of the equations, like Schrödinger's Equation, are full of Greek letters and only physics experts will recognize them. Throughout the book, however, Stewart shows that these are equations that run our lives in our technical age. The equations may be used professionally just by the egghead experts, but in a wider sense, we all use them, every day.

The first chapter here is on the old familiar a^2 + b^2 = c^2, the Pythagorean Theorem. This is pure math, straight from Euclid, and not (as are many of the equations here) from applied mathematics or mathematical physics. But that does not mean the Pythagorean Theorem is forever locked within the mathematicians' ivory tower; it led to trigonometry.
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Format: Hardcover
As a quick glance through this book will indicate, some of the equations presented are well-known and simple whereas others can look awfully intimidating. A given reader may be intimately familiar with several of these equations while at the same time be totally unaware of some of the others or their significance. The author does not provide mathematical derivations of these equations. Instead, he describes how they came about, explains their meanings and applications and then discusses their legacy. Several fields are covered in this fascinating book: physics, engineering, mathematics, statistics, information theory, chaos and economics.

The author writes very clearly and in a friendly, lively and engaging style. In some sections the author seems to assume very little or no pertinent knowledge on the part of the reader and as a result is very careful and detailed in his explanations, e.g., logarithms, calculus. In other cases, the discussions are much more challenging, and although new terms are briefly defined, the discussions may still result in some head scratching, e.g., quantum mechanics, Black-Scholes equation. Consequently, it is difficult to determine at what population this book is aimed. Science buffs may be bored by some of the more elementary discussions but find themselves more challenged by the topics on which they know very little. On the other hand, a younger (or less-informed) reader may learn quite a bit from the elementary discussions but get lost in some of the other sections.

Overall, I think that it is safe to say that this book has something for everyone. Although I did find some sections rather challenging, I must admit that I thoroughly enjoyed it.
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