The Eureka Factor: 5 Best Books about Mathematics and Mathematicians

The world is divided into two kinds of people – those who love math and those who would like to maintain their distance from it. Gruesome stories of how entire childhoods were wiped away and innocence shattered by math and sinister math tutors shall always do the rounds. However, it is ironic that no matter how much math is hated and dreaded, the interest in books related to math and mathematicians remains constant. Movies made on math and troubled mathematicians always seem to be nominated for the Oscars (remember A Beautiful Mind and Proof?); and mathematicians are revered perhaps more than chemists, physicists and the likes. There is something enigmatic about the mathematician’s tryst with numbers that never fails to fascinate.

The year 2012 is the official Year of Mathematics in India.  As the year slowly comes to an end, ACADZONE brings you five books about math that will leave you awed, once again, of this baffling and amazing subject.

1.  The Man Who Knew Infinity by Robert Kanigel

Whether you are a math lover or hater, you can’t deny fascination of the enigma that was Srinivas Ramanujan. Born in a poor Brahmin family and largely self taught, he baffled G. H. Hardy, the prominent English mathematician when he wrote to him about numbers. Hardy brought him to Cambridge wherein began one of the most brilliant mathematical collaborations in the history of the subject.

The Man Who Knew Infinity is set on the lines of an adventure story undertaken by two mathematicians from different backgrounds and different stations, united by the love of numbers.  It is a book that will hold you in its spell for a long time.  The book is about to be adapted into a Hollywood movie where Bollywood actor R. Madhavan has been roped in to play Srinivasa Ramanujan.

2.  Godel, Escher, Bachby Douglas Hofstader

A cult book by all standards, Godel, Escher, Bach combines the mathematical logic of Kurt Gödel, with the etchings of Maurits Cornelis Escher and the music of Bach. By no means an easy book, Hofstader goes a step further by including dramatic dialogues between Lewis Carroll’s characters Achilles and the Tortoise and their friend the Crab (Lewis Carroll was a well-known mathematician himself). DNA, computers and the possibility of computers ever evolving human intelligence have been treated extensively in this book. Godel, Escher and Bach is a wonderful exploration of fascinating ideas at the heart of cognitive science: meaning, reduction, recursion, and much more. The book won the Pulitzer Prize and remains a bestseller till date

3.  The Man Who Loved Only Numbers by Paul Hoffman

The Man Who Loved Only Numbers is a biography of the famous and eccentric mathematician Paul Erdos written by Paul Hoffman. It was first published in 1998 as a hardcover edition. A paperback edition appeared in 1999. The book is, in the words of the author, “A working oral history based on the recollections of Erdos, his collaborators and their spouses.” The book was a bestseller in the United Kingdom and has been translated in 15 different languages. The book won the 1999 Rhone-Poulenc Prize.

4.  The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy by Isaac Newton

A list on books about Mathematics is incomplete without one by the mathematician who was the first to talk about the laws of physics. Newton shone a light on the mysteries of the universe through the book that would later go on to inspire mathematicians and physicists for generations to come. Using only Euclid’s geometry, Newton discovered and developed the laws of motion and gravity that he later applied to the motion of planets. In this book, Nature is ‘explained’ and laws are made coherent with mathematics creating magic in the reader’s mind and certifying Newton as nothing short of a math-magician.

5.      Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensionsby Edwin A. Abbott

A list on books about Mathematics need not necessarily be non-fictional. Mathematics is a subject that inspires fiction of the highest, most fascinating variety. Take for example the case of Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. In 1884, an English schoolmaster, Edwin A. Abbott wrote a novella called Flatland. It was a satirical take on the Victorian society. However, what immortalized it among physicists, mathematicians and science lovers was not the satire but its take on the world of multiple dimensions. It is difficult to gauge the seriousness of Mr. Abbott’s take on multiple dimensions. But intentional or not, Mr. Abbott explores the world of variant dimensions, literally, like never before.

In a fictional world inhabited by geometrical figures a humble square is visited by a three dimensional sphere. The square refuses to acknowledge the sphere for the sole reason that a being so alien to himself is unacceptable for him. But the sphere manages to convince him of his existence. Once convinced the square begins to consider the possibility of dimensions more than three. This offends the sphere and he takes square on a visit to Pointland that is inhabited by a sole, self-absorbed point who refuses to acknowledge them while also asserting that they are extensions of his own thought process. Being a point he cannot think beyond himself.

As square returns to Flatland he learns that anyone who professes knowledge of other worlds is executed in his own land. Will the square be executed as well? Or will he be the new prophet and messiah of Flatland? One just has to read Flatland for the subtlety of its subject, poignancy of the message and outrageous exploration of the world of multi dimensions.


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