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Mathematics: From the Birth of Numbers Paperback – March, 1997

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Editorial Reviews Review

What does mathematics mean? Is it numbers or arithmetic, proofs or equations? Jan Gullberg starts his massive historical overview with some insight into why human beings find it necessary to "reckon," or count, and what math means to us. From there to the last chapter, on differential equations, is a very long, but surprisingly engrossing journey. Mathematics covers how symbolic logic fits into cultures around the world, and gives fascinating biographical tidbits on mathematicians from Archimedes to Wiles. It's a big book, copiously illustrated with goofy little line drawings and cartoon reprints. But the real appeal (at least for math buffs) lies in the scads of problems--with solutions--illustrating the concepts. It really invites readers to sit down with a cup of tea, pencil and paper, and (ahem) a calculator and start solving. Remember the first time you "got it" in math class? With Mathematics you can recapture that bliss, and maybe learn something new, too. Everyone from schoolkids to professors (and maybe even die-hard mathphobes) can find something useful, informative, or entertaining here. --Therese Littleton

From Scientific American

The book is an enthusiastic and utterly amazing popularization that promises to be in print for decades.... It is an important reference and a book that is plain fun to dip into. If a family is to have only one mathematics book on the reference shelf, then this is the one.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 1128 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition (March 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 039304002X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393040029
  • Product Dimensions: 7.5 x 2.2 x 10.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (96 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #194,201 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

114 of 120 people found the following review helpful By Hans U. Widmaier on December 23, 1999
Format: Paperback
The author of this book is not a professional mathematician, but rather someone who has deeply fallen in love with math and wants to share his passion. His enthusiasm is infectuous. I came away from this book thinking that perhaps math really is the purest, most profound, most beautiful of all human endeavors. I know that many mathematicians feel that way, but I had never before experienced it myself. Immersion in this book produces a state of total mental engagement that I normally reach only when reading Shakespeare or playing Bach. Be aware, however, that a fairly high level of mathematical competency is required for full comprehension, and that for non-mathematicians like myself the book is only partially accessible. But I don't view that as a drawback: the book makes you want to study and develop your technical understanding sufficiently to truly enjoy the more esoteric topics the book discusses. That's what happened to me. I find myself reading up on calculus and going through old college textbooks of mine. It must be a pretty good book that can accomplish that!
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59 of 61 people found the following review helpful By Stan Vernooy on December 10, 2005
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
How did this guy do it? He wasn't even a mathematician - he was a doctor. And he wrote a book that's fascinating for both mathematicians and non-mathematicians. The book goes all the way from the incention of numbers and the most elementary arithmetic, all the way through elemetary calculus. Along the way he manages to give at least an introduction to fractals, combinatorics, non-Euclidean geometry, harmonic analysis, and probability - all topics which the typical American student would probably miss on her or his way through the standard sequence of material leading up through calculus.

But Gullberg does much more than just present the material. He includes the history of how - and WHY - each major mathematical innovation was developed, placing the entire subject in a human and historical context that is missing from almost any other book on any of these many topics.

I don't care how much math you know - there are almost certainly historical facts in here that you haven't encountered before. And I don't care how LITTLE math you know - you'll find this book accessible and fascinating.

The only thing I didn't care for was the silly little limericks and cartoons scattered throughout the book. Most of them weren't funny, and served only to distract the reader from the fascinating material.

This book should be read thoroughly from page 1 through page 1039, and then read over and over again, as you dip randomly into whatever chapters happen to strike your fancy at any particular time, for the rest of your life. I originally bought a paperback copy, but I soon realized that I had to have a hardcover version that will stay on my shelf until the day I die - except when it's in my lap or on my desk.

Unparalleled and irreplaceable.
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55 of 59 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on November 13, 2000
Format: Paperback
I hate mathematics. My wife, a former National Merit scholar and professional cryptographer, enjoys working out advanced equations of all varieties. Both of us appreciate this book. Gullberg combines historical overview and practicality as he advances through the universe of numbers and equations. I have enjoyed reading his commentaries and anecdotes which appear throughout the text. My wife has turned to it for understanding problems related to her work. This is a book for school or home library, that belongs on any shelf where there are people eager to learn or in need of an in-depth understanding of algebra, calculus, trigonometry, topology, or more advanced studies. It is worth the price and will not quickly become obsolete like so many other scientific texts.
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Peter Renz on August 2, 2003
Format: Paperback
Gullberg gathered and organized this book over a ten year period. It is a charming compendium. I have been looking things up in it and browsing it for five years, and there are many areas I have not yet touched. I will be enjoying it for another five or ten years.
Why do I like it? Here are five reasons, one for each star.
First, it has wealth of facts and formulas, and it gives you a bit of history with the material. It is nice to see where things came from. Second, if you need to look something up, this is a good place to find it. Third, if you have studied mathematics or used it, you will meet your old friends on these pages, and you will learn something new about some of them. Fourth, if you are keen about the subject, you will see interesting ways of drawing connections between various results and subjects in this book. Fifth, the author's good humor and broad culture shine on these pages so that reading this book is a pleasure.
Editorial reviewer Donald Albers got it right in his Scientific American review when he said that if you were to have just one mathematics book on your shelf, this would be the book to have. I have many mathematics books. This is one that I keep close at hand in my office.
Highly recommended.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By FrKurt Messick HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICE on March 23, 2005
Format: Paperback
Jan Gullberg describes his impulse to write this book as deriving from conversations with his son, who was studying engineering. Gullberg himself was not a mathematician, but rather a surgeon of international standing; mathematics became a hobby of his, an intellectual pursuit with practical applications that he could share with his son. This thick book (nearly 1100 pages) has over a thousand drawings, which were prepared by Gullberg's son, Par.

This book can be classified in many ways. In one sense, it is a giant book of mathematics trivia - almost every major and minor aspect of mathematics is represented here in some fashion, from the explanation of cardinal and ordinal numbers to the analytic geometry, calculus, probability and statistics, and symbolic logic. These are arranged in a fairly standard progression, one that most people who have studied mathematics in school will recognise, at least up to the point that they studied.

Another classification of the book can be that of a mathematics encyclopedia. The table of contents, supplemented with the name index and the subject index in the back of the book, makes this a ready reference for short descriptions.

There are fun pieces here - for example, Gullberg derives approximate values for pi in two different scriptural texts (a passage from Kings and a passage from Nehemiah); there are mathematical jokes (yes, there are such things) and puzzles, some of which have only been recently solved (Fermat's last theorem, for example). There are historical pieces and purely mathematical pieces here, and in general the reader will learn about mathematics even when one doesn't understand fully the information being presented.

This is the one drawback of the book - it is not a mathematics textbook.
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