Most helpful positive review
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Highly illustrated general survey
on January 17, 2010
This is a highly illustrated, 202 page, survey of the story of mathematics. It is divided into 9 chapters covering the development of mathematics according to specific topics, such as: numbers, geometry, algebra, the development of analytic geometry and calculus, the geometry of complex shapes (topology) and set theory. These topics are roughly chronological, tracing the development of mathematics from ancient times to the present. Given that the book contains only 202 pages of text and much of this is taken up will illustrations, the treatment of the material is, of necessity, quite cursory.
What I liked - The book gives a reasonable treatment of many subjects - not detailed, but reasonable. The illustrations generally support the text and there are many inserts that provide biographical information or additional specific information on a given topic. There was sufficient information to allow one to search out more on the Internet or from another, more detailed, book. I particularly liked the chapter that covered the development of calculus. It clearly showed that Newton did not develop it from scratch, but built on the firm foundation of the work of others, some of who came very close to finishing the job before him.
What I did not like - There is relatively little mathematical development (as opposed to the historical aspects) and I have a feeling that if someone knew little or nothing about a subject that they would be lost. This certainly was my feeling about the section about set theory. This section did not really tell me much about the subject or why I should care about it. I also found several errors, which made me feel that I had only scratched the surface of the potential flaws in the book. For instance, Julius was not the proper name of Caesar, it was his clan name (he was from the clan Julii; sub clan Caesar). His proper name (or praenomen) was Gaius. This is a trivial point to be sure, one that has nothing to do with mathematics, but one that points to the possibility that there are other lapses in the author's research. (The author is not a mathematician, but has a background in medieval English literature. Were she a mathematician, I would have been much more likely to overlook an error of this sort, which is non-mathematical.) I also found that there was a lack of completeness in some discussions that could mislead one with little mathematical background. For instance, the author includes the old deductive "proof" that 2=1, without pointing out the error (multiplying both sides of an equation by zero) that makes this possible. If this book is given to a mathematical neophyte this discussion is apt to lead to confusion and frustration.
I would recommend this book to a high school student, providing that there was some supervision to help the student over the rough spots. It is also suitable, with the same caveat, for a more advanced student interesting in the history and development of mathematics. I would not, however, recommend this to someone interested in a more detailed presentation. For them, I would recommend Derbyshire's "Unknown Quantity" or Kline's Mathematics for the "Non-mathematician".