CTK Insights

26 Apr

A Review of Dana Mackenzie's "The Universe in Zero Words"

I just finished reading Dana Mackenzie's book The Universe in Zero Words. The reading was interrupted by the necessary sleep, meals, perfunctory answering email - and that's about it. It was a very absorbing reading, even though most of the material was not new to me. The subtile of the book The Story of Mathematics as Told Through Equations gives one a pretty good idea what the book might be about. The book presents a rather coherent story in 24 chapters that runs through more than 2500 years.

Dana Mackenzie is indeed a very good story-teller. The book engagingly lays down historical and cultural aspects of mathematical evolution, starting with the significance of simple equations 1+1=2 and 1-1=0, and reaching to the modern times when math equations gained predictive powers in physics (Dirac's equation) and explained and even influenced economic developments (Black-Scholes equation.)

Development of mathematics has always required imagination, intuition, and often daring to break up with tradition or to stand up to the establishment. Mackenzie weaves skillfully human element - short biographies, anecdotes, confrontations - into the story. Among the less known examples is Lagrange's objection to the publication of Fourier's treatise that introduced the notion of spectra and Max Plank's doubts as to the validity of Einstein's light-quanta hypothesis. Among the amazing anecdotes is the crucial role played by cigar smoke in verification of the quantum theory. The reason Paul Dirac has agreed to accept the 1933 Nobel Prize was to avoid publicity which would he drawn to him if he refused the prize.

As could be expected, equations play a leading role in the book. There is nothing scary about that. Equations embody relationships between the phenomena they describe and the parameters on which those phenomena depend. The author's focus on explaining the phenomena - which he does exceptionally well - makes the dignificance of the equations very clear, even to the reader without math background.

So what do you have here? 200 pages, 24 equations, 1 endearing and well told story. I wholeheartedly recommend the book.

Reference

  1. D. Mackenzie, The Universe in Zero Words: The Story of Mathematics as Told Through Equations, Princeton University Press, 2012

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