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Available online at Historia Mathematica 37 (2010) 110–128 Book Reviews The Princeton Companion ...

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Historia Mathematica 37 (2010) 110–128

Book Reviews The Princeton Companion to Mathematics Edited by Timothy Gowers. Associate Editors June Barrow-Green and Imre Leader. Princeton (Princeton University Press). 2008. ISBN 978-0-691-11880-2. 1008 pp. $99.00 The Princeton Companion to Mathematics combines cultural, philosophical and historical perspectives on mathematics with substantial accounts of current mathematical subject areas. These accounts are written in enough detail to enable a reader with some universitylevel mathematics to obtain a sense of the character and leading problems of each subject area. The volume is divided into seven parts: nature of mathematics (Part I), historical origins (Part II), mathematical concepts, branches and results (Parts III, IV, V), biographies (Part VI), applications (Part VII) and final perspectives (Part VIII). The historical content is contained primarily in Parts II and VI, and in some of the essays in Parts VII and VIII. Timothy Gowers contrasts the Companion with internet sources such as Wikipedia and Mathworld, which tend to be “drier, and more concerned with giving the basic facts in an economical way than with reflecting on those facts” (p. xiii). The editors eschew any simple definition of mathematics, describing instead its chief component parts, algebra, geometry and analysis. The language of mathematics is formulated in conventional modern terms using sets, relations, functions, and some basic sentential and predicate logic. Definitions introduce the objects of mathematics, these being number systems, algebraic structures, transformations and so on. A range of goals of mathematical research are identified and illustrated using concrete examples. Part II opens with an exposition by Fernando Q. Gouveˆa of the origins of numbers and number systems. There are overview essays on the history of geometry and algebra by Jeremy Gray and Karen Parshall, respectively. Tom Archibald looks at the emergence of rigor in mathematics, while Leo Corry traces the development of the concept of proof. A good account of algorithms with several historical examples is provided by Jean-Luc Chabert. The foundational crisis of mathematics in the first part of the 20th century is chronicled by Jose´ Ferreiro´s. In this last essay David Hilbert emerges as a central figure, one whose views about mathematics changed significantly between 1900 and 1925. At the turn of the century the modern-looking Hilbert championed Georg Cantor’s set theory and defended the use of actual infinities in mathematics. By contrast, his famous formalist program of the 1920s advocated the use of finitary methods to establish the consistency of mathematics. As Ferreiro´s observes (p. 151), Hilbert’s “new project was to employ Kroneckerian means for a justification of modern, anti-Kroneckerian methodology”. The core of the book is the exposition of subjects, concepts and problems in Parts III, IV and V. The presentation of this material, which takes up close to 600 large-format pages, reflects the current organization and outlook of mathematics. While it is notably lacking in a sense of historical development, readers will find it valuable in providing insight into the

Book Reviews / Historia Mathematica 37 (2010) 110–128


many specialized areas of modern mathematics. The focus is on pure mathematics, although there are also essays on highly mathematized subjects such as dynamics (chaos and fractals), general relativity, the three-body problem and probabilistic models. Based on my reading of a small and eclectic sample of the essays (representation theory, mirror symmetry, computational complexity), I found the volume to be illuminating and successful in its stated purpose. The editors of the volume chose to exclude the biographies of living mathematicians, deciding to concentrate on the period before 1950. Many of the biographical sketches have been written by historians who have published whole books on their subjects. The 100-odd sketches are fairly short, and complement those at such sources as the St. Andrews website. The period before 1650 is represented by only a handful of the most major figures (for example, absent are Eudoxus, Ptolemy, Diophantus, Pappus, any Islamic mathematicians other than al-Khwa¯rizimı, Oresme, Regiomontanus and Cavalieri). Roughly 60% of the biographies are of individuals born in the 19th century. Part VII on the influences of mathematics examines applications of mathematics in physics, chemistry and biology, as well as in various subjects of what is sometimes known as the new applied mathematics—network theory, algorithm design, transmission of information, economics, cryptography, and statistics. An overview of logic and philosophy of mathematics is presented by John P. Burgess, while Florence Fasanelli provides an interesting survey of the relations of mathematics and art from the Renaissance to the present. Catherine Nolan’s essay on mathematics and music examines the atonal revolution in the 20th century and the role played in the new music by reflective symmetries and novel methods of harmonic organization. The concluding part of this volume assays a range of topics—problem solving, the rationale for mathematics, mathematics as an experimental science, advice to a young mathematician, and the ubiquity of mathematics. Eleanor Robson’s essay on numeracy includes some discussion of the mathematics of the ancient Babylonians as well as of anthropological studies of the Quechua inhabitants of Bolivia. There is evidence that written language developed from forms of counting, and that numeracy may have preceded literacy. In the words of Reviel Netz (quoted on p. 989), “across cultures, and especially in early cultures, the record and manipulation of visual symbols precede and predominate over the record and manipulation of verbal symbols.” Robson also believes that numeracy should be understood more broadly to encompass traditional skills of women in weaving and needlepoint. These activities involve the counting and ordering of threads, scaling and the ability to judge distances and to form intricate patterns. They attest to the existence of a socially invisible but nonetheless genuine numeracy. The volume concludes with an informative chronology by Adrian Rice of selected events in the history of mathematics. Rice cites mathematical advances in Islamic, Indian and Chinese mathematics, and also references the appearance of major works in mathematical astronomy. The 18th, 19th and 20th centuries receive respectively 13%, 27%, and 26% of the total space. The one entry for the 21st century is Grigori Perelman’s solution in 2003 of the Poincare´ conjecture. As one would expect from a volume comprised of contributions by such an impressive array of experts, the Princeton Companion is a veritable treasure trove of mathematical information. What is perhaps more surprising, given the vast range and complexity of much of the material, is the accessibility and readability of many of the articles contained within. Add to this the strong historical flavor that informs much of the content, and we


Book Reviews / Historia Mathematica 37 (2010) 110–128

have a compendium that is likely to remain a standard work of reference for many years to come. Craig G. Fraser Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada M5S 1K7 E-mail address: [email protected] Available online 24 October 2009 doi:10.1016/

The Oxford Handbook of the History of Mathematics Edited by Eleanor Robson and Jacqueline Stedall. Oxford (Oxford University Press). 2009. ISBN: 978-0-19-921312-2. vii + 918 pp. £85.00 The sheer scope of the thing exhilarates. A first glance into this hefty volume promises enlightenment on mathematics in a Babylonian classroom, in medieval theology, in the Third Reich, in John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, in Sanskrit verse, in 19th-century Naples, in astronomical observatories, in “modern” culture, in traditional Vietnam—and much, much more. Jaded indeed must be a reader who cannot find fascination somewhere in a compendium so rich and so diverse. Eleanor Robson and Jacqueline Stedall, who will not need introducing to regular readers of this journal, have in fact assembled 36 articles spanning, as the sample above suggests, much of the globe and much of recorded history. Their roster of contributors ranges widely too: it includes, they say (p. 3), “old hands alongside others just beginning their careers, and a few who work outside academia”—for example a research associate at a textile museum. This breadth of subject-matter and of authorial expertise clearly goes to the heart of the editors’ purpose. They say (p. 1) that they wish to “raise new questions about what mathematics has been and what it has meant to practise it”. They urge (p. 1) that [M]athematics is not confined to classrooms and universities. It is used all over the world, in all languages and cultures, by all sorts of people. Further, it is not solely a literate activity but leaves physical traces in the material world: not just writings but also objects, images and even buildings and landscapes.

I suspect that few readers will find any of these propositions revelatory; but however that may be, certainly the editors’ deep commitment to them gives their book much of its flavor. In trying to impose order on their embarrassment of riches Robson and Stedall have adopted a scheme which regrettably seems neither natural nor useful. They divide the 36 papers into three precisely equal collections, tagged respectively “Geographies and Cultures”, “People and Practices”, and “Interactions and Interpretations”, and then they partition each of these subsets into three groups of exactly four papers each. The symmetry is elegant, but a skeptic might protest that those three labels are too broad, too vague and too overlapping to make helpful signposts. Quickly, now: under which of them would one seek, let us say, Markus Asper’s article on the “two cultures” of mathematics in ancient Greece? Under “People and Practices”? Why not? What topic in the history of mathematics would not fit comfortably under so welcoming an umbrella? Actually Robson and Stedall assign the Asper paper to “Geographies and Cultures”—and, again, why not? That too