The Equation That Couldn't Be Solved: How Mathematical Genius Discovered the Language of Symmetry

Mario Livio, Author
Mario Livio, Author . Simon & Schuster $26.95 (353p) ISBN 978-0-7432-5820-3
Reviewed on: 05/30/2005
Release date: 09/01/2005
Paperback - 353 pages - 978-0-285-63789-4
Paperback - 353 pages - 978-0-7432-5821-0
Ebook - 368 pages - 978-0-7432-7462-3
Hardcover - 368 pages - 978-0-285-63743-6
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The idea of symmetry has been heavily deployed in recent science popularizations to introduce advanced subjects in math and physics. This approach usually backfires—mathematical symmetry is much too difficult for most laypeople to understand. But this engaging treatise soft-pedals it in a crowd-pleasing way. The title's formula is the "quintic" equation (involving x raised to the fifth power), the analysis of which gave rise to "group theory," the mathematical apparatus scientists use to explore symmetry. Inevitably, the author's attempts to explain group theory and its applications in particle physics and string theory to a general audience fall sadly short, so readers will just have to take his word for the Mozartean beauty of it all. Fortunately, astrophysicist Livio (The Golden Ratio ) keeps the hard stuff to a minimum, concentrating instead on interesting digressions into human interest (e.g., the founder of group theory, Evariste Galois, was a revolutionary firebrand who died in 1832 at age 20 in a duel over "an infamous coquette"), pop psychology (women have more orgasms when their partners have symmetrical faces), strategies for finding a soul mate and some easy math puzzles readers might actually solve. The result is a somewhat shapeless but intriguing excursion. Photos. Agent, Susan Rabiner. 50,000 first printing; 9-city author tour. (Sept.)

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