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Is God a Mathematician? Hardcover – January 6, 2009


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; BC ed. edition (January 6, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 074329405X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743294058
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.5 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (78 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #517,010 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The title of astrophysicist Livio's latest wide-ranging science survey is a teaser since God rarely makes an appearance; along with the French astronomer Laplace, Livio has no need of that hypothesis. Rather, Livio (The Golden Ratio) is concerned with the contentious question: is mathematics a human invention? Or is it the intricate design of the universe that we are slowly discovering? Scientists in past centuries have argued for the latter, Platonist position. In the last 50 years, however, many scientists, calling into question the whole idea of scientific discovery, maintain that we have invented mathematics. Livio gives as one example the famous golden ratio, which has fascinated Western mathematicians for millennia and was originally emphasized for its mystical symbolism. But Chinese mathematicians, not sharing that outlook, didn't discover it—or maybe they just didn't need to invent it. Livio hedges his bets, unsatisfyingly arguing that mathematics is partly discovered and partly invented. But Livio is a smooth writer. His fans will enjoy this book, and new ones may discover him. B&w illus. (Jan. 6)
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* Four centuries after church inquisitors accused Galileo of dangerous skepticism, a modern astrophysicist hails the Italian scientist as the embodiment of bold faith: namely, faith that God himself inscribed the heavens in mathematics. Because mathematics now empowers research communities investigating everything from deep-space pulsars to genetic proteins, a secularized version of Galileo’s credo now defines the new orthodoxy of science. But Livio recognizes a profound mystery inherent in the formulas his colleagues employ so sedulously: Why does the universe harmonize so well with numbers accessible to human minds? Probing this mystery, Livio traces the evolution of mathematical reasoning from the ritual symbolism of the ancient Pythagoreans to the multilayered analyses of twenty-first-century string theorists. In the impressive parade of intellectual explorers, we encounter Archimedes pondering geometrical figures at the very moment of his death, Descartes overthrowing all of medieval philosophy with one audacious thought, and Gödel quashing the ambitions of system-building logicians. This wide-ranging inquiry, however, ultimately highlights far more than personalities. A sharp conflict emerges between platonically minded philosophers who view mathematical breakthroughs as transcendent discoveries and psychologically inclined thinkers who interpret these breakthroughs as merely human inventions. Testing the tensions between these views, Livio delivers an exhilarating foray into the founding premises of mathematical science. --Bryce Christensen

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Customer Reviews

The content of this book has very little to do with the actual title.
CAM
This is a great book that makes the reader clearly grasp the truth and greatness of history of mathematics and science in the World.
Ronnie Lee
Nonetheless, the book is a great read, and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in Math, Physics, or Science.
Amazon Customer

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

72 of 78 people found the following review helpful By Hampton Childress on January 10, 2009
Format: Hardcover
The specific question posed in the title doesn't actually get answered (at least not directly by God). In fact, it gets illuminated, and in the most entertaining and probing ways. Dr. Livio weaves together science, history, and philosophy breathing life into some of the most famous thinkers and thinking about mathematics' extraordinary utility in describing our physical world. He explains these sometimes contrary perspectives so clearly and concisely you feel you could almost write a layman's treatise yourself. Were he a teacher at my high school or university he would have been my favorite, leaving me with not only profound understandings but, perhaps moreso, with profound questions.
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31 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Aaron C. Brown TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on February 20, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I enjoyed this book but, with all due respect to reviewers who found it deeply insightful on the title topic, I have to agree with Stephen Grey and PBCup. It's a competent and entertaining, superficial account of the relation between mathematics and reality. As a history of mathematics it's equally competent and entertaining, but highly selective. If you want breadth or depth, look elsewhere, and be prepared to sacrifice "entertaining."

This book is better described as a terrific essay about how mathematicians feel about the relation of their work with reality. Judged on this basis, it's up there with the great essays of science. It's book-length because the middle chapters are masterfully-told history vignettes that set the background for the meat of the essay.

Many of the key points are made by direct quotation from great mathematicians and the book spends more time on why people chose problems and how they felt about solutions, than on the pure mathematics. The results of this inquiry are unexpected and fascinating. I think the "God" of the title is not the one who created the universe, as you might expect, but the one in whose image humans were made.
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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful By C. Travis on June 15, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I had two reactions to the book. The first is a little negative since the book does not answer the question posed in the title, or the real issue the book sets out to investigate: Why is mathematics is so unreasonably effective at describing nature? Mathematics is used to understand and describe everything from radioactive decay, the movements of planets, the way our brain works, the construction of bridges, and countless other phenomenon. But why does it work so well? The other reaction is positive. The book provides an interesting overview of mathematical history over the past 2,000 years. All concepts are explained in everyday language; no mathematical background is required. This is a strong point of the book. The book is whirlwind tour of mathematical history covering the main ideas of the greatest mathematical thinkers, and touching on such subjects as logic, geometry, gravitation, and knots.
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45 of 54 people found the following review helpful By E. Cosla on January 9, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Anyone interested in mathematics, philosophy, or science, will love this book.
Even though I always knew that all the fundamental theories of the universe are based on mathematics, it somehow never occurred to me to ask: What is it that makes mathematics so powerful?
Livio explains why the question is even more important than the answer.
What makes this book quite unique is the fact that it is not so much a history of mathematics, as it is a history of ideas on mathematics.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By G. Stelzenmuller on August 16, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Maybe. Or maybe not. One conclusion is certain from this book: the author does not really tackle this exact question as his main theme. His big question for the reader, rather, is: has mathematics been discovered, or has it been invented? His answer turns out to be, "yes." Sometimes he argues for the one idea, sometimes for the other, either way strongly. God, perhaps, has to rule on the case, but Mario Livio certainly does not propose this! The "Plato" approach he speaks about at length takes the "discovery" side of the debate. Oddly enough, to this reviewer the amount of time spent on Mr. Plato probably muddled the story line, rather than clarifying. Nevertheless, "Is God a Mathematician?" flowed smoothly and satisfyingly.

When treating a topic like a history in mathematics, an author could take on a theme and pick among hundreds of personages to flesh out the theme. One has the feeling that Dr. Livio did just that. Fortunately, his book gets credit for being both interesting and informative, thus worth reading. He does a fine job spelling out some technical topics for the world of us amateur, non-doctoral people. Much of the book sets up more like an anthology. The bad part: harder for the reader to keep the chapter threads connected. The good part: if you do not like a particular personage's story, you can skip to the next. Something gets lost, of course, but it may have been partially lost anyway.

For theists looking for a deity's ownership of mathematics, the author's answer is not really there. For those without religious belief, the answer would not matter anyway. So, forget the title words and enjoy the book for its stories. You might also be able to figure out the "Plato" part in more detail than did this reviewer.
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31 of 38 people found the following review helpful By A reader on January 7, 2009
Format: Hardcover
After his fabulous "The Golden Ratio," Livio now tackles the question of the "unreasonable effectiveness" of mathematics in explaining the world. Mixing philosophy, mathematics, and the sciences, he creates an intellectual tension that reads almost like a mystery novel. I liked in particular the chapter on the ideas of Archimedes and Galileo, and the chapter on logic, which was challenging but fascinating.
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