Leonard Mlodinow Reviews One, Two, Three
Leonard Mlodinow is a physicist at Caltech and the bestselling author of The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules our Lives and Euclid’s Window: The Story of Geometry from Parallel Lines to Hyperspace. He also wrote for Star Trek: The Next Generation. He lives in South Pasadena, California. Read his review of One, Two, Three:
Fifteen years ago, if publishers were sure of anything, it was that (1) calculus is not funny, and (1+1) no one wants to go to lie in bed clutching a book about the concept and history of integral and differential operators. Then along came the always audacious David Berlinski (his bio described him as “having a tendency to lose academic positions with what he himself describes as an embarrassing urgency”). A mathematician who is by trade a purveyor of proofs, Berlinski wrote A Tour of the Calculus, proving the skeptics wrong on both counts. With One, Two, Three: Absolutely Elementary Mathematics, Berlinski has now applied his vast knowledge, wit, and inimitable trademark writing style to tackle another subject about as sexy as American cheese: arithmetic. But don’t worry, you won’t find any multiplication tables here--this is a book about what it means to multiply (and add, subtract, and divide). Berlinski challenges us to see these as deeper issues, a level of mathematical thinking that most people never consider, but which forms the very logical foundation upon which rest ideas as vital as one plus one equals two.
Is there more to arithmetic than its application through our rote rules of calculation? Berlinski describes how, beginning in the late nineteenth century, mathematicians got around to questioning the meaning of arithmetic, and searching for axioms upon which that structure might be placed. Then he guides us through their reasoning.
Numbers form the foundation of our universe, yet most of us never puzzle over what they mean. We take for granted our numbers, the operations we perform on them, and the rules, such as commutivity, that those operations follow. It all seems to work when we buy our cappuccino and croissant, so why question it, unless you get shortchanged? The truth is, we don’t question arithmetic because we are in that famous and unenviable position of not knowing the extent of what we do not know. But Berlinski educates us, and shows that the logical basis of arithmetic is worth knowing, and worth appreciating, for it is both beautiful and profound, and represents a grand feat of human imagination. It is the revelation of a world of ideas upon which the simplest counting and calculating--acts without which no planning or transactions, from engineering to commerce, could exist--is predicated. That is David Berlinski’s gift to the reader. It is candy for the intellectually curious.
(photo: Marcio Fernandes)
"Berlinski here discusses the ‘commons’ of mathematics: natural numbers, zero, negative numbers, and fractions…. The seamless integration of broader contextual ideas brings his writing to life." —Library Journal
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“[A] tour de force by a mathematician who wants the intellectually curious and logically minded . . . to understand the foundations and beauty of one of the major branches of mathematics.”
“With broad culture and wry humor, Berlinski takes a look at some basic concepts in math and the people who worried about them. A treat!”
—Gregory Chaitin, author of Meta Math!
“With wit and philosophy, with the clash of symbols and history, Berlinski displays the inner soul of simple arithmetic.”
—Philip J. Davis, professor emeritus of applied mathematics, Brown University