cover image A Strange Wilderness: The Lives of the Great Mathematicians

A Strange Wilderness: The Lives of the Great Mathematicians

Amir D. Aczel. Sterling, $24.95 (288p) ISBN 978-1-4027-8584-9

 Prolific science writer Aczel offers a grab bag of biographical sketches of important mathematicians: starting with the “rope-pullers” in ancient Egypt, who determined property lines for farmers’ fields after the Nile floods receded each spring. Included is the story of Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, first in a long line of mathematicians and scientists (Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, and Cantor—to name a few) whose groundbreaking work earned professional scorn and charges of heresy. During Europe’s Dark Ages, progress came from Arabs like Al-Khwarizmi, the man who popularized algebra and the numerals we use today. Some of the history is muddled: Aczel attributes the invention of calculus to both Gottfried Leibniz and Isaac Newton, without clarifying how their two approaches differed. Thanks to better documentation, more recent figures have much richer biographies, but most of Aczel’s synopses lack real eccentricity, which comes as a disappointment after he enthuses about math’s “fascinating subculture with its own peculiarities and idiosyncrasies” in the preface. The book works best as an episodic overview of important names in the field and the context in which they worked. (Oct.)