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The Best of All Possible Worlds: Mathematics and Destiny Hardcover – October 1, 2006

ISBN-13: 978-0226199948 ISBN-10: 0226199940 Edition: 1st

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; 1 edition (October 1, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226199940
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226199948
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 0.8 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,844,533 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


"A run through the history of the last four hundred years, seen through the eyes of a French mathematician. Mathematics appears as a unifying principle for history. Ekeland moves easily from mathematics to physics, biology, ethics, and philosophy."
(Freeman Dyson New York Review of Books 2006-10-19)

"[Readers] will not regret a minute spent reading this book. This intelligent, eloquent, very accessible work will make new connections for virtually every reader. Ekeland is clearly a master teacher. Essential."
(Choice 2007-06-01)

"A book that provides much information about the ideas of optimization and critical points and is full of details about a large cast of characters. . . .The book can be savored in bits and pieces. . . . But the reader who just chooses to start on page one and keep going will almost certainly find it impossible to put the book down, because it is densely packed with delightful items of information and is as entertaining as a fast-moving thriller."
(Hector Sussmann Notice of the AMS)

About the Author

Ivar Ekeland is professor of mathematics and economics at the University of British Columbia and director of the Pacific Institute for Mathematical Sciences. He is the author of several books, including Mathematics and the Unexpected and The Broken Dice, both published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

33 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Allan M. Lees on January 19, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Ivar Ekland is one of those people who make you glad to be part of the human race. He writes easily and eloquently and his exposition is direct and without unnecessary embellishment. He proceeds from simple beginnings and then takes the reader on a multi-century tour of the evolution of mathematics as seen through the prism of man's quest to demonstrate the presence of a deus ex machina. The quest, of course, is ultimately futile and it is mathematics that first exposes and then elaborates on that futility. The marvel of Ekland's book is that the necessary fundamental mathematical concepts are presented in such a way as to be intelligible to anyone, and the endeavor itself is presented in an historical context rich with anecdote and unexpected treasures. For example, most people know that Voltaire had Liebnitz in his sights when he created the character of Pangloss in his novel Candide; but how many know (as I did not, before reading Ekland's book) that Leibnitz had been so influenced by Maupertuis' ideas concerning optimization of action? And who would have thought that the development of the calculus of variations necessary to elucidate this supposed god-driven optimisation would in time lead to the inescapable relativity of the Lorenz transformations and hence to Einstein's Special Theory? Thus the irony that the tools developed by man to show god's working in the universe ultimately reveal that there cannot be, in fact, any ghost in the cosmic machine.

So much, so good. The first seven chapters are a wonderful romp through the history of philosophy, metaphysics and mathematics. But it's in the last three chapters that Ekland really excels.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Karl A. Young on September 28, 2009
Format: Paperback
I'm inclined to like Ivar Ekeland as he's a very good writer and expositor of mathematical ideas. But this book seemed pretty sketchy to me, particularly the long winded later chapters which take an extremely long tour through various of Ekeleand's opinions to arrive at the rather non earthshaking conclusion that despite not being able to produce a practical utopia, rational social policy is probably a good thing. I'm not quite sure who the intended audience for this book is, as I doubt the general public (even the very well educated general public) needs much convincing that operations research or any of it's spin offs hasn't produced much in the way of practical social policy and that mathematical optimization methods are only useful in highly specialized applications. And on the other hand this seems like it would be even more obvious to those familiar with the mathematical ideas. The first few chapters present a nice, if not highly original, historical account of the origins of the idea of mathematical optimization. I felt that the accounts of isochrony and brachistichrony were particularly well written. But after that the book too often seemed to lose focus and jump from one incompletely developed theme to another, in what I felt was an ill conceived and strained attempt to relate too much of the history of ideas in too many different fields to the notion of mathematical optimization. A more focused and detailed historical account of the development of the least action principle, capitalizing on Ekeleand's talent for conveying mathematical ideas simply and clearly, would have been far more appealing to me.Read more ›
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By David Michael on November 10, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I've read other Ekeland essays. This one's one of the best. Why do I need more words. Who wants to read them?
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Israel Schneiderman on May 22, 2010
Format: Hardcover
This is the first time I have heard of Ekland or his book.So when I picked up a copy I had no preconceptions.
You might define this as a long essay on Ekland's view of the power of mathemematics concerning an understanding of our world... that is in a deeper more philosphical way.
The book starts with a conventional historical account of the work of Galileo on mechanics and quickly passes to the authors central theme the search for a general pronciple such as that of
"least action" that he concludes has failed.The book then speedly spirlels out of control by trying to touch on almost every issue of ethics and philosphy.
So the book is neather a history of mathemematics or guide to the history of one of mathematics most facinating priciples or even a book on phillosophy but a hoge podge of all 3 with many other things added.
I feel that somehow Ekland despite his great erudition and humanity is somewhat lost.His decries all the terrible events of the 20th century, the holocause of Jews , Armeneans, Hiroshima .But for him there is no law of nature ... just randomness.He lives in a world that man can never understand but feel instintivly that some things are "wrong"
In this sense he has retreated from the position of the great scientists of the past who still believed that there was a God who gave reason to this complex universe.As dostoyevski said " if there is no God everthing is permissable" So why does Ekland complain....??
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