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Journey through Genius: The Great Theorems of Mathematics Paperback – August 1, 1991

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Editorial Reviews Review

In Journey through Genius, author William Dunham strikes an extraordinary balance between the historical and technical. He devotes each chapter to a principal result of mathematics, such as the solution of the cubic series and the divergence of the harmonic series. Not only does this book tell the stories of the people behind the math, but it also includes discussions and rigorous proofs of the relevant mathematical results.


"An inspired piece of intellectual history."
Los Angeles Times

“It is mathematics presented as a series of works of art; a fascinating lingering over individual examples of ingenuity and insight. It is mathematics by lightning flash.”
— Isaac Asimov

“Dunham deftly guides the reader through the verbal and logical intricacies of major mathematical questions, conveying a splendid sense of how the greatest mathematicians from ancient to modern times presented their arguments.”
—Ivars Peterson, author of The Mathematical Tourist


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (August 1, 1991)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 014014739X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140147391
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.6 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (150 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #18,389 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

William Dunham, Koehler Professor of Mathematics at Muhlenberg College, is the author of "Journey Through Genius: The Great Theorems of Mathematics"; "The Mathematical Universe"; and "Euler: The Master of Us All". He has received the Mathematical Association of America's George Polya, Trevor Evans, and Lester R. Ford awards, as well as its Beckenbach Prize for expository writing.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

381 of 385 people found the following review helpful By Shard on December 14, 2000
Format: Paperback
Some books, such as Ball's and Beiler's seem to have sparked a life-long love of mathematics in practically everyone who reads them. "Journey Through Genius" should be another such book.
In the Preface, the author comments that it is common practice to teach appreciation for art through a study of the great masterpieces. Art history students study not only the great works, but also the lives of the great artists, and it is hard to imagine how one could learn the subject any other way. Why then do we neglect to teach the Great Theorems of mathematics, and the lives of their creators? Dunham sets out to do just this, and succeeds beyond all expectations.
Each chapter consists of a biography of the main character interwoven with an exposition of one of the Great Theorems. Also included are enough additional theorems and proofs to support each of the main topics so that Dunham essentially moves from the origins of mathematical proof to modern axiomatic set theory with no prerequisites. Admittedly it will help if the reader has taken a couple of high school algebra classes, but if not, it should not be a barrier to appreciating the book. Each chapter concludes with an epilogue that traces the evolution of the central ideas forward in time through the history of mathematics, placing each theorem in context.
The journey begins with Hippocrates of Chios who demonstrated how to construct a square with area equal to a particular curved shape called a Lune. This "Quadrature of the Lune" is believed to be the earliest proof in mathematics, and in Dunham's capable hands, we see it for the gem of mathematics that it is.
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100 of 103 people found the following review helpful By Kenneth James Michael MacLean on December 26, 2001
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
William Dunham has brought life to a subject that almost everyone considers dull, boring and dead. Dunham investigates and explains, in easy-to-understand language and simple algebra, some of the most famous theorems of mathematics. But what sets this book apart is his descriptions of the mathemeticians themselves, and their lives. It becomes easier to understand their thinking process, and thus to understand their theorems.
I am a layman with a computer science degree, and a layman's understanding of mathematics, so I am no expert! But I loved this book.
I found Dunham's description of Archimedes' life and his reasoning for finding the area of a circle and volume of a cylinder to be (almost!) riveting.
Dunham's decription of Cantor and his reasoning regarding the cardinality of infinite sets was fascinating to me. But most of all, I loved his chapter on Leonhard Euler. Having in high school been fascinated by Euler's derivation of e^(i*PI) = -1, I was even more amazed at the scope of this man's genius, and Dunham's description of his life.
The chapter on Isaac Newton is an especially good one as well.
Dunham smartly weaves these important theorems of mathematics into the history of mathematics, making this book even more understandable, and, dare I say it, actually entertaining!
This book is a gem, and for anyone interested in mathematics, it is not to be missed.
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50 of 51 people found the following review helpful By Michael R. Chernick on January 24, 2008
Format: Paperback
Dunham has done an excellent job of taking us through the history of mathematics providing a context with the civilization of the time. He shapes his production around what he considers to be the great theorems of mathematics.

The order of presentation is chronological. Early on we see great admiration for Euclid and his "Elements" as two of Euclid's theorems appear on the list, a proof of the Pythagorean theorem and the proof that there are infinitely many primes. Euler and Cantor are also honored with two theorems included among the collection.

However there is more to Dunham's presentation than just the proofs. We find other related results by these masters and other great mathematicians that were their contemporaries. He shows reverence for Newton. Gauss and Weierstrass and others are mentioned but none of their theorems are highlighted.

It is not his intention to slight these great mathematicians. Rather, Dunham's criteria seems to be to present the theorems that have simple and elegant proofs but often surprising results. His coverage of Cantor is particularly good. It seems that he is most knowledgeable about Cantor's mathematics of transfinite numbers and the related axiomatic set theory.

For a detailed description of the chapters in this work, look at the detailed review by Shard here at Amazon. I found this book to be well written and authoritative and learned a few things about Euler and number theory that I hadn't known from my undergraduate and graduate training in mathematics. Yet I did not give the book five stars.

There are a couple of omissions that I find reduce it to a four star rating. My main objection is the slighting of Evariste Galois.
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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Joseph Kim on March 23, 2000
Format: Paperback
As a high school math teacher, I found Dunham's book perfectfor filling what is sadly lacking in math textbooks--the idea thatreal people have contributed to the progress of mathematics. Dunham makes it clear that mathematics is not simply calculation, but an exciting journey of discovery. I have included the book in my Advanced Mathematics courses for several years now, and my students always name it as one of the best parts of the class. The other day, one of my calc students corrected an underclassman's pronunciation of Euler, commenting, "he was great enough that we should pronounce his name correctly." Journey Through Genius is where he encountered Euler's greatness.
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