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32 people found this helpful

ByDonald Limution April 5, 2014

This is the highest rating, because this book sheds light on one of the toughest philosophical questions. The question is what accounts for the "Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences"? Mazur via his entertaining history that spans many places, times and cultures, explains that the mathematical symbols we commonly use did not come down from the mountain written on a tablet, but evolved with a lot of passion, genius, and serendipity. Our present mathematics have been pushed and cajoled into shape via symbols. This book may not be a complete explanation as to the effectiveness of mathematics, but it is an enlightening peek under the curtain. If you like history and have a mathematical bent (no need to be a mathematician, and mathematicians would like it) you would enjoy this book.

One person found this helpful

ByMarcello Malpighion February 6, 2015

I have always been fascinated by how writing and in particular how mathematical symbols came to be. I loved the 2001 "E=mc~2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation" in which the history of each symbol is related by David Bodanis. I was hoping to find in Mazur's book more of that. But he's fixated on the square root of -1. Sure, there is a bit of history of other symbols (Pi gets a paragraph...), but most of the book is about i. Maybe it is my fault for expecting something else just based on the title and the review in Science magazine.

ByDonald Limution April 5, 2014

This is the highest rating, because this book sheds light on one of the toughest philosophical questions. The question is what accounts for the "Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences"? Mazur via his entertaining history that spans many places, times and cultures, explains that the mathematical symbols we commonly use did not come down from the mountain written on a tablet, but evolved with a lot of passion, genius, and serendipity. Our present mathematics have been pushed and cajoled into shape via symbols. This book may not be a complete explanation as to the effectiveness of mathematics, but it is an enlightening peek under the curtain. If you like history and have a mathematical bent (no need to be a mathematician, and mathematicians would like it) you would enjoy this book.

ByArthur C Howardon June 27, 2014

This is an excellent source for not just the history of our common mathematical symbols -- which would have made it a great book to read -- but also the development of mathematical thinking, from purely geometric and rhetorical to abstract. I highly recommend it to anyone who teaches, or enjoys, mathematics.

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Bykikeo58on December 20, 2014

Somebody should mention that this book is about the symbols used to represent mathematical numbers, i.e. 1,2,3. The mathematical operators are not covered beyond addition. Thus most of the book is about the history of the addition process. While the history is interesting and fascinating, I was hoping for a history of the semiotics used for the operators in math at a higher level than the third grade. That aside, I would recommend the book if for no other reason than it helps examine the role of symbolic representation in expressing elementary logic. The symbols both enable and limit the logic. The efforts used to overcome those limitations are important milestones in technological progression at any level.

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ByNotTooPickyon January 12, 2016

First off, I loved this book and highly recommend it. With respect to readability, this was much easier for me to read than The Rainbow of Mathematics: A History of the Mathematical Sciences (The Norton History of Science). We used Journey through Genius: The Great Theorems of Mathematics for a mathematics history course when I was an undergrad and to me, Mazur's book was similar to that in readability, but with a focus on symbols of mathematics.

As a math educator, I especially loved "Sans Symbols" which introduces the development of symbolic algebra. The start of the chapter has an exceptionally interesting account of the author reading in person the oldest surviving manuscript of Euclid's Elements.

I read many parts of this book aloud to my wife. She listened and appreciated those excerpts. This speaks to the quality of writing, and I cannot say this of very many mathematics books I've read.

As a math educator, I especially loved "Sans Symbols" which introduces the development of symbolic algebra. The start of the chapter has an exceptionally interesting account of the author reading in person the oldest surviving manuscript of Euclid's Elements.

I read many parts of this book aloud to my wife. She listened and appreciated those excerpts. This speaks to the quality of writing, and I cannot say this of very many mathematics books I've read.

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ByAmazon Customeron June 12, 2014

This book is a compendium of the progress mankind has made, by various cultures & each contribution to the science of Mathematics, Algebraic & other Advanced Numerical Notation & communication. It helps the reader some, if the reader is familiar with the field of math & some of the personalities & cultural backgrounds to early mathematics. The entire field of mathematics, calendars, & architectural math & development of Mayan, Incan & other significant contributions these early builders of ancient, magnificent temples, observatories, etc. is overlooked, bypassed, or ignored. Awesome book & well worth every penny that it cost! Easy to read, outstanding bibliography & research & an interesting invite into our human roots of mathematical progress!! Love it!!

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Bykookie womblaton July 22, 2017

Some very interesting sections - depends on your particular interest - full of relevant anecdotes -

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ByJulian Anguson July 21, 2015

Great book, although Mazur was somewhat long-winded in some chapters, Info-to-# pages index was also lower than expected.

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ByMarcello Malpighion February 6, 2015

I have always been fascinated by how writing and in particular how mathematical symbols came to be. I loved the 2001 "E=mc~2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation" in which the history of each symbol is related by David Bodanis. I was hoping to find in Mazur's book more of that. But he's fixated on the square root of -1. Sure, there is a bit of history of other symbols (Pi gets a paragraph...), but most of the book is about i. Maybe it is my fault for expecting something else just based on the title and the review in Science magazine.

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One person found this helpful.
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Byhquainon August 7, 2014

Very low info/page ratio, indeed very low info in absolute terms. I was tempted into purchase by a favorable notice in MIT's Tech Review, which was quite misleading about its (lack of) content. In addition to its gab-fest character, the author appears to assume the reader hasn't hit high school math just yet. The author also has the odd habit of withholding facts even as he lets on that he, not you, knows them. So: fascinating subject, which you must look elsewhere to learn about.

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We've all been disappointed when we got a Kindle title (or any e reader) and the MathML or LaTex was slaughtered. Since this book has numerous symbols but not a lot of complex formulas, Kindle is not a problem. Where there are "sentences" in math symbols, they are handled well.

That said, the hard cover is a treasure. This is a very well produced historical survey that should be in every library, including yours if you're into history, math or even language. I personally find that I understand the subtleties of (English) language better if I understand the etymology of a word. This is equally true albeit in a slightly different way with the fine treatment of symbolic evolution in this gem of a book.

Understanding how a summa symbol came to be won't tell you how to use it in combinatorics or a power series, or in double form in a logistic regression error term. However, the good news is we don't have to understand that to really enjoy this book. Flip side, if you ARE into math, you'll REALLY love this. I like books that don't just parrot formulas but give an idea of the "intuitive" meaning or reason for the formula, like "putting these numbers in a matrix makes it easier for a computer to change coordinate axes which is one reason we do it."

This text takes that a step further, and not only gives context, but HISTORICAL context in genuinely useful human endeavors-- the WHY and how of the underlying value as use evolved. This turns on a LOT of light bulbs if you're into math, and is still fun and a great "detective" read even if you're not. Which is my final point: don't get turned off due to the math side if you love history and detective (deductive) logic-- the writing is crisp, well paced and "leads" you quickly forward-- IOW NOT DULL or dry. And frankly, as I look at other math books, the symbols also seem a little more friendly and familiar, and less intimidating, knowing about the neighborhood in which they grew up. Would also make a great gift for a detail oriented picky person in your life!

That said, the hard cover is a treasure. This is a very well produced historical survey that should be in every library, including yours if you're into history, math or even language. I personally find that I understand the subtleties of (English) language better if I understand the etymology of a word. This is equally true albeit in a slightly different way with the fine treatment of symbolic evolution in this gem of a book.

Understanding how a summa symbol came to be won't tell you how to use it in combinatorics or a power series, or in double form in a logistic regression error term. However, the good news is we don't have to understand that to really enjoy this book. Flip side, if you ARE into math, you'll REALLY love this. I like books that don't just parrot formulas but give an idea of the "intuitive" meaning or reason for the formula, like "putting these numbers in a matrix makes it easier for a computer to change coordinate axes which is one reason we do it."

This text takes that a step further, and not only gives context, but HISTORICAL context in genuinely useful human endeavors-- the WHY and how of the underlying value as use evolved. This turns on a LOT of light bulbs if you're into math, and is still fun and a great "detective" read even if you're not. Which is my final point: don't get turned off due to the math side if you love history and detective (deductive) logic-- the writing is crisp, well paced and "leads" you quickly forward-- IOW NOT DULL or dry. And frankly, as I look at other math books, the symbols also seem a little more friendly and familiar, and less intimidating, knowing about the neighborhood in which they grew up. Would also make a great gift for a detail oriented picky person in your life!

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28 people found this helpful.
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