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Unknown Quantity: A Real and Imaginary History of Algebra Paperback – May 29, 2007
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Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Top Customer Reviews
Unknown Quantity is similarly constructed, with historical and biographical material alternating with chapters Derbyshire once again describes as mathematical primers. Although trained as a molecular biologist, I have a fairly strong background in mathematics. I still found much to learn. Especially interesting is the material on Vector Spaces and Algebras, the introduction to Hamiltonian Quaternions, Rings and Fields (with the vista of Abstract Algebra just over the hill) and a short introduction to Algebraic Geometry. I found even more to enjoy. The historical and biographical threads make the unfolding mathematics that much clearer and easier to visualize, hence more enjoyable. Derbyshire has produced another superb book that makes mathematics live and breath. To breath life into abstraction is a great gift.Read more ›
How lucky we are, then, that John Derbyshire has chosen once more to grace us with his talent for writing clear, concise, coherent prose on higher math.
In Unknown Quantity, Derb has again achieved the near-impossible feat of writing an approachable, relatively easy-to-read book on mathematics.
Reading Mr. Derbyshire's mathematical writings allows one to experience some of the awe and majesty of the deepest, most esoteric reaches of higher mathematics. In giving the common reader this chance, he does a service both to mathematics by allowing those who would rarely even hear about such topics to learn something of them and also to the reader by allowing him for a moment to feel smarter than he probably has any reason to.
I cannot disagree with others who found Prime Obsession to be the better read, however this should not be taken as a serious criticism of Mr. Derbyshire or Unknown Quantity. Prime Obsession was helped by its more limited focus - not that the author had any shortage of interesting and enlightening information and insight to share.
Unknown Quantity's goal of presenting a readable, reasonably approachable history of algebra is definitely met, but it would probably require a book several times the length of this one to properly explore all the intricacies of the story with the thoroughness that Mr. Derbyshire could. That book might not be as broadly marketable but I feel it would be gladly received by those of us who have discovered Derb's genius.
If you have any interest in math or the history of human thought, you cannot go wrong with Unknown Quantity.
As in "Prime Obsession", Derbyshire writes very appealingly about the history of the times and about the mathematicians themselves. The biggest issue is that the book is too small for such a huge subject. It's only 320 pages long with 32 pages of notes.
Derbyshire's portraits of algebraists in his book are uniformly delicious. His bio of Alexander Grothendieck reminded me of the life of former world chess champion, Bobby Fischer. Grothendieck was as unworldly, uninformed, naively opinionated, anti-American, and brilliant as Fischer. We find him now holed up in a remote village in the Pyrenees, where "he is known to come up with ideas like living on dandelion soup and nothing else."
Or Solomon Lefschetz, the algebraic geometer, who lost both his hands in an industrial accident. He was "energetic, sarcastic, and opinionated", and something of a character. His most famous quote: "It was my lot to plant the harpoon of algebraic topology into the body of the whale of algebraic geometry."
I think that Derbyshire had to edit severely. His introduction to "Unknown Quantity" says that it was "written for the curious nonmathematician." Perhaps he should have said, "written for the college math major who decided not to pursue a career in mathematics." I studied math in college but I didn't get a degree.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
This is one of the best book to have a comprehensive understanding of the history of Algebra and its main contribution to scientific achievementsPublished 6 days ago by Raul Alvarez
I really relate to the Derb. I'm an old-school tech-nerd (BS Engineering, 1973, learned the slide rule as a freshman; read Scientific American Magazine--especially Martin Gardner's... Read morePublished 1 month ago by Regular Guy
Ever wondered why the heck they taught you algebra, and the quadratic equation? This book will show those first beginnings of algebra in their broadest context. Read morePublished 12 months ago by Wold
If you've ever wanted to know where the Algebra you studied in school came from, thois book is for you!Published 15 months ago by KC
Bought this after reading the biography of Alan Turing and realising that I have forgotten almost everything I ever knew about Algebra.Published 19 months ago by Salmotrutt
I love Derbyshire. He combines history with technical proofs in a lighthearted way.Published 21 months ago by good student
Perfect supplement for any secondary or higher math teacher.Published on July 21, 2014 by Lars Neises