▸ history

Read: A Brief History of Infinity - The Quest to Think the Unthinkable

Infinity or infinitesimals really are something that can boggle your mind. Similar as zero, infinity was not always there in our (mathematical / philosophical) toolbox. Even though we nowadays use the concept of infinity and its reciprocal the infinitesimals almost nonchalantly, we do so without really considering the philosophy and history behind it.

Brian Clegg provides such a history. And if his book was not part of a larger series the books title would be the first pun: A brief history of infinity. There are others. The book even closes with one. Correspondingly the whole book has a rather light tone; Clegg’s rhetoric is almost colloquial. This makes the book rather enjoyable, the topic could have certainly also presented in a much duller way.

For anyone more generally interested in mathematics the book is, however, a disappointment. The focus is clearly on the history of infinity and not the mathematics or the deeper philosophical questions that are only commented upon en passant. And even the history part is certainly – as the classifier “brief” in the title indicates – not a complete and authoritative treatise. The author may also have padded the text with some material that seems to belong more to his own personal interests. There is surprisingly much space dedicated to Roger Bacon. Or, it is rather not so surprsingly; earlier Clegg wrote a whole book about this medieval scholar. In Clegg’s defense, Bacon really did contribute to the discussion on infinity.

Read: Pyramids

Terry Pratchett’s novels are all just hilariously funny (at least the ones I have read so far). That is why I like to read them; especially on long trips or on the train to the office. They brighten my mood and sometimes they may even be instructive in one way or another. Pyramids definitely has instructive elements. It is a blend of physics, philosophy, politics, and ancient history. There are references to ancient Egypt (obviously), Greek, and Rome sprinkled with references to modern culture.

The references are so plentiful that – I have to admit – I most certainly did not “get” everything. Luckily, others already (ok, the book is some twenty years old) provide some annotations

Read: The Ascent of Money

Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money was aptly timed; with the financial turmoil of 2007 that we still feel and need to surmount it was bound to attract some interest. It helps, of course, to have a acompanying tv documentary.

The book is, however, not as aptly titled. “The ascent and decline of private and public debt financing” would describe the book’s content more appropriately. Though this would be less appealing to the paying costumer, wouldn’t it?

In spite of the book’s subtitle “A Financial History of the World” the book is rather slim; just about 260 pages excluding the endnotes and index. Not what you would expect from an endeavor with such a title. Yet, it does not state that the (his)story told is comprehensive. It is not. Ferguson focuses on a few historical turning points, a few historical figures in our financial past. He offers some glimpses in what was going on and why. His focus is, however, not on money – the thing we nowadays call certain printed papers – it is on debts and debt financing of private and public ventures, on risk taking and risk takers. Interesting nonetheless. Yet, I really would have loved to read something that was more focusing on the history on money: From pebbles, to coins, to printed papers, to plastic cards.

Apart from that, The Ascent of Money is quite an entertaining and instructive little book. Ferguson does not stick strictly to the timeline to advance his narrative, he rather organizes his material around some themes that follow a logical sequence. The writing is clear; my only animus are the endnotes; I would prefer footnotes that are so much easier to find…

Read: Unknown Quantity - A Real And Imaginary History of Algebra

Unknown Quantity was part of my last year’s advent calender. A surprise since it was not on my wish list. Yet, it could have been on the list as I am – at least once in while – interested in math, or the history of math.

Unknown Quantity traces the history of algebra from its roots to modern times. While it seems quite comprehensive concerning the earlier phases of discoveries it becomes rather patchy in describing the development during the, say, last hundred years. Of course, a lot was happening during these years and most can only be understood with a proper degree in mathematics. A fact that led the author John Derbyshire (apparently quite a character) to add some more technical notes (on the easier topics) to the historic accounts and biographical notes.

The book is rather interesting and informative; though certainly it is not the authoritative source on the history of math, or even just algebra.