Math Makers: The Lives And Works Of 50 Famous Mathematicians by Alfred S. Posamentier and Christian Spreitzer (book review).

July 3, 2019 | By | Reply More

Now this book, ‘Math Makers: The Lives And Works Of 50 Famous Mathematicians’ by Alfred S. Posamentier and Christian Spreitzer serves two purposes. You get some insight into mathematicians and also see the formulas they are most famous for shown in applied detail as well. It will hardly be surprising that the early Greek mathematicians history is more obscure in the realms of time but I suspect even they would prefer their work to stand out.

There are also some stark scientific reminders. As far back as 246BCE, the Greek Erathosthenes worked out the circumference of the world with, what we know today, of a 2% inaccuracy by observing shadows and angles. Brahmagupta in 628CE did similar work, progressing it to working out the length of the year that we use today. He also brought the Hindu-Arabic number symbols we use today into the west and introduced the zero.

Fibonacci appears to have the longest entry but as he also created algebra that shouldn’t be surprising. Well, that was before I found many longer entries there were further in.

Oddly, if you thought mathematicians only came from that profession, then Gerolamo Cardano certainly breaks that rule as he was trained as a physician but was also a gambler and his interest in odds developed his maths skills.

With the introduction of electronic calculators, I suspect being taught logarithms at school literally went out the window. Something I doubt few people would know is that its creator, John Napier (1550-1617), first devised logs in the 17th century as a means to calculate large numbers by simply adding them together or division by subtraction. I haven’t even logs since school but it’s a sharp reminder that such calculations were possible before calculators.

It should hardly be surprising to see early algebra and calculus rearing its head from time to time. Something that comes up under Pierre de Fermat’s entry about modern pure mathematics is that it’s become so specialised that it has become impossible to become specialist in more than seven branches at the same time. You would think that there would be some work being done to sort that out. After all, what might apply in one or several branches might have practical applications elsewhere. Trees and forests spring to mind.

We owe a lot to Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) as he first worked out the binary number system which became the language of computers as a simple change in placement of ‘1’ and ‘0’ allowed fast adding and multiplication. Although a bit hard for humans, the switches in computer processors thrive on it. He also made calculus work in a way that Newton didn’t, simply by making its language better.

Something I wasn’t aware of was how much we owe to Leonhard Euler (1707-1783) for providing many of the mathematical symbols we use and take for granted today exploiting the Greek alphabet.

The more you read this book, the more apparent it becomes that most of these mathematicians were experts in more than mathematics and much of it applying to a variety of tasks. I can’t help wonder if in the modern day that universities turfing out pure mathematicians who can only do one subject is making a mistake. Having something the maths that can be applied is more beneficial than working in the abstract.

It’s hardly surprising that the likes of Charles Babbage (1791-1871) is included and his early computers. It does make me wonder if engineering was more advanced in those days, would both his machines have been completed. Then again, how quickly would these computers have developed beyond calculating. Oddly, although Aida Lovelace (1815-1852_ is also covered although an early computer language named after her isn’t mentioned. George Boole’s logic and gate openings is also the principle of CPU processing.

It’s rather interesting when we reach Emmy Noether (1882-1935) at the turn of the last century and seeing women not being able to get university training at some of these places in Germany without the approval of the tutors. Equally, I wonder how many of you know of Srinivasa Ramanujuan (1887-1920), an impoverished Indian mathematician who wasn’t clever in anything outside of his subject matter and, unfortunately died young, but now revered in his home country.

Nomadic Paul Erős (1913-1996) holds a curious distinction of working with about 500 mathematicians in his life-time and wrote 1,500 papers on the subject. The couple examples shown here depict some unusual relationships in numbers that you can try out for yourself. Hopefully, it might encourage some of your sprogs into a world of numbers.

Should I go on? This book ticks so many boxes. You learn a lot about these mathematicians, their maths and history and some general knowledge aspects along the way. I was reading the advance edition and decided to spread my reading out to a couple chapters a day than bulk read. It also made it a lot easier to absorb the information. Some of the formulas were extremely small but I suspect they will be the right size in the final edition.

We use maths a lot in our lives, even when you think we don’t and rely on computers and whathaveyou do your thinking. Discovering where it all came from should make you think and that’s not a bad thing.

GF Willmetts

May 2019

(pub: Prometheus Books. 480 page hardback/ enlarged paperback. Price: $25.00 (US), $26.50 (CAN), £19.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-63388-520-2. Ebook: Prive: $11.99 (US), $13.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-63388-521-9)

check out website: www.prometheusbooks.com

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Category: Books, Science

About the Author ()

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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