Top positive review
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Brilliant book. Belongs on the top shelf.
on December 14, 2000
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. The epilogue discusses the infamous problem of "squaring the circle", which mathematicians tried to solve for over 2000 years before Lindeman proved that it is impossible.
In chapters 2 and 3 we get a healthy dose of Euclid. Dunham briefly covers all 13 books of "The Elements", discussing the general contents and importance of each. He selects several propositions directly from Euclid and proves them in full using Euclid's arguments paraphrased in modern language. The diagrams are excellent, and very helpful in understanding the proofs. If you've ever tried to read Euclid in a direct translation, you should truly appreciate Dunham's exposition: the mathematics is at once elementary, intricate, and beautiful, but Dunham is vastly easier to read than Euclid. The Great Theorems of these chapters are Euclid's proof of the Pythagorean theorem and The Infinitude of Primes, which rests at the heart of modern number theory. Dunham obviously loves Euclid, and his enthusiasm is infectious. After reading this, it is easy to see why "The Elements" is the second most analyzed text in history (after The Bible).
Archimedes is the subject of chapter 4, and he was a true Greek Hero. Even if most of the stories of Archimedes' life are apocryphal, they still make very interesting reading. However the core of the chapter is the Great Theorem, Archimedes' Determination of Circular Area. His method anticipated the integral calculus by some 1800 years, and also introduced the world to the wonderful and ubiquitous number pi. The epilogue traces attempts to approximate pi all the way up to the incomparable Indian mathematician of the 20th century, Ramanujan.
Chapter 5 concerns Heron's formula for the area of a triangle. The proof is extremely convoluted and intricate, with a great surprise ending. It is well worth the effort to follow it through to the end. Chapter 6 is about Cardano's solution to the general cubic equation of algebra. Cardono is certainly one of the strangest characters in the history of mathematics, and Dunham does a great job telling the story. The epilogue discusses the problem of solving the general quintic or higher degree equation, and Neils Abel's shocking 1824 proof that such a solution is impossible.
Sir Isaac Newton is the topic of chapter 7. Rather than go into the calculus deeply, Dunham gives us Newton's Binomial Theorem, which he didn't really prove, but nevertheless showed how it could be put to great use in the Great Theorem of this chapter, namely the approximation of pi. Chapter 8 breezes through the Bernoulli brothers' proof that the Harmonic Series does not converge, with lots of very interesting historical biography thrown in for good measure.
Chapters 9 and 10 discuss the incredible genius of Leonard Euler, who contributed very significant results to virtually every field of mathematics, and seems to have been a decent human being to boot. Chapter 10, "A Sampler of Euler's Number Theory", is my favorite in the book. A large portion of his work in number theory came from proving (or disproving) propositions due to Fermat, which were passed on to him by his friend Goldbach. This chapter gives complete proofs of several of these wonderful theorems including Fermat's Little Theorem, all of which lead up to the gem of the chapter. Taken as a whole it is the kind of number theory detective work that has lured so many people into the field over the years. Chapter 10 is a mathematical tour de force.
The last 2 chapters handle Cantor's work in the "transfinite realm", and should certainly serve to expand the mind of any reader. By the time you finish, you'll have an idea about the twentieth century crisis in mathematics, and its resolution, and what sorts of concepts are capable of making modern mathematicians squirm in their seats. Dunham does a beautiful job of demonstrating Cantor's proof of the non-denumerability of the continuum. At this altitude of intellectual mountain-climbing the air is thin, but it is well worth the climb!
In brief, "Journey Through Genius" might almost be considered a genius work of mathematical exposition. I can think of few authors more capable of conveying the excitement and beauty of mathematics, as well as an appreciation for the sheer enormity of the achievements of the human mind and spirit.