This is a pocket book in the same series as the entertaining Little Book of Unscientific propositions etc – but there is a fundamental difference between the two. The subject matter in that other title was fun and entertaining, making the little articles on different subjects an enjoyable read, but here it’s more a case of plodding through mathematical history picking out the main features. Frankly it is dull, not aided by the relentless chronological order, which puts all the boring basics at the beginning.
Even when the book moves out of straightforward maths into historical context there are some issues because the history of maths parts don’t always seem particularly well researched. So, for example, the book says that the Pythagorean who let slip that the diagonal of square to be irrational is unknown, but that he was taken out and drowned. The usual version is that we have a name for the man (Hipparsus) but that there is only a legend that he was drowned. Similarly, Newton is identified here as the ‘infidel’ in Bishop Berkley’s discourse on the method of fluxions/calculus – where in fact it was Edmund Halley.
There also seems to be paucity of maths to cover, because a fair number of the topics are straightforward science, like the move from an earth-centred to a sun-centred universe and the mechanics of falling bodies. There’s even a section on special relativity, which is rather poorly handled as the text suggests the effects of relativity are subjective, as if (for instance) time dilation just seems to happen. This is misleading as it is a real, measurable effect.
Overall, then, this is a book that isn’t particularly one you can sit and read through for enjoyment, but neither is it detailed enough to be used as a reference book. I’m really not sure what it’s for. We need more good popular maths books, but sadly this doesn’t make a contribution.
Review by Peter Spitz