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Customer Review

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Pleasant enough, February 16, 2004
This review is from: The Riemann Hypothesis: The Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics (Hardcover)
I want to call this a "biography", but the Riemann Hypothesis isn't biological. It's almost take on a life of its own, though - maybe the term really does apply.
In any case, this is a very enjoyable book about the history of the hypothesis. In many ways, this book is more about the people who pursue that elusive proof. That small, distinguished crowd includes the reticent and the outspoken, the loners and the social thinkers, the meticulous and those who think by leaps and bounds. Sabbagh has a strong emphasis on the living mathematicians who hunt this elusive quarry. He has spent long hours interviewing these mathematicians and watching them at their work. At bottom, this may be a book about intellectual passion and the people for whom its reward is real.
The book contains a few disconcerting mis-statements:
-- one says that plutonium occurs naturally - on Earth, it does not,
-- another on p.11 makes a statement about prime factors of the number 60 (I'd believe that same statement about all of 60's factors, including non-primes), and
-- a third on p.143 appears to have applied parentheses incorrectly in describing Skewe's number.
None of these, by itself, affects the main thrust of the book. Still, they leave me wondering about every fact I read. When I find such errors, I have to wonder how many I didn't find, ones that I don't have the information to check.
Because of the book's emphasis on the people dedicated to the hypothesis, there is no one place where the hypothesis' history is laid out in full and in order. That's small enough loss, if you accept that the book's topic is really mathematicians and not mathematics. The author does give a brief and clear statement of the problem itself - that takes math at the level of high school calculus to understand, but the reader won't be punished for skipping past its details.
This book has real nerd appeal (I like it). It's a readable case study of a famous problem and of the people tracking it down. It won't really expand anyone's intellectual horizons, but there are lots worse ways to spend a few hours. Despite flaws, I found this book quite enjoyable.
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