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An Ill-Conceived Practical Joke?
on October 31, 2005
At the time that I ordered this book, I had a natural inclination to be sympathetic with its author, since his reputation indicated that he and I had similar views about politics and the philosophy of science. That only increased my disappointment when this ended up being one of the least enlightening and most annoying books I've ever encountered. If Berlinski is as talented as I'd been led to believe, it's hard not to interpret _Infinite Ascent_ as either some sort of practical joke or a rush job to fulfill a contract.
In _Infinite Ascent_, Berlinski has a tendency to wax grandiloquent, using metaphors and similes that serve no evident purpose and are sometimes downright bizarre, as when, for example, he likens sets and their elements to the male anatomy (p. 129). Following this up one page later with Berlinski's fantasy about schoolgirls with "their starched shirt fronts covering their gently heaving bosoms" (p. 130) does nothing to ameliorate concern about the author's tendency to get distracted.
One of Berlinski's running themes is the use of "..." in mathematics to represent the continuation of a pattern. He likes to joke about this so much that he starts inserting these dots in his formulas needlessly, just to get to comment on them. For example, instead of just writing down the (extremely short) formula for subtracting complex numbers (p. 69), he leaves an ellipsis and then states that "the crutch of three dots [covers] the transmogrification of a plus to a minus sign and nothing more."
Some of Berlinski's comments are real head-stratchers: "[The Elements] is very clear, succint as a knife blade. And like every good textbook, it is incomprehensible." (p. 14); "[Exponential functions] mount up inexorably, one reason that they are often used to represent doubling processes in biology, as when undergraduates divide uncontrollably within a Petri dish." (p. 71). Huh?
_Infinite Ascent_ has few formulas or other concrete mathematical details, and what there is is often wrong. The formulas for the solutions to quartic equations of quadratic type are botched (p. 93), roots of equations are confused with zeros of functions (p. 80), inscribed rectangles are described while circumscribed rectangles are drawn (p. 56), and g12*du1*du2 is misidentified as a formula for the infinitesimal distance between the points u1 and u2 (p. 120). The sections on logic are the ones Berlinski handles most competently, but even that has been covered better by many others.
Berlinski thinks that Weierstrass's definition of limit is "infinitely wearisome" (p. 145) and is "promptly forgotten" by mathematicians after they have learned it. I think most analysts would disagree strongly with his opinion, and would classify the definition of limit among those things they couldn't forget if they wanted to. (That Berlinski himself very well might have forgotten it is suggested by his unconventional decision to use the letter delta to represent a *large* index (p. 61) in his definition of the limit of a sequence.)
Berlinski opines that the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus (connecting differentiation to definite integration) is something that "no one at all would expect". On the contrary, I consider it to be eminently plausible. Berlinski also describes the classic math book _Counterexamples in Analysis_ as consisting of "a series of misleading proofs supporting theorems that are not theorems." _Counterexamples in Analysis_ actually contains nothing of the sort. Rather than containing fallacious "proofs" of non-theorems, it contains exactly what its title says it does: Counterexamples (i.e., examples that show why the hypotheses of (true) theorems are necessary and why stronger conclusions are unwarranted).