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Science Book Reviews

Prime Obsession 325

Posted by timothy
from the claire dept.
jkauzlar writes "Popular mathematics books don't come along often and when they do, they're only occasionally worth the read. John Derbyshire, a controversy-stirring political propagandist by day, and mathematician-enthusiast by night, has composed what may turn to out to be one of the classics of mathematical literature for the lay-person." Read on for the rest of jkauzlar's review.
Prime Obsession: Bernhard Riemann and the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics
author John Derbyshire
pages 422
publisher Plume
rating 9/10
reviewer jkauzlar
ISBN 0452285259
summary History of the attempt to prove the Riemann Hypothesis

Bernhard Riemann came to the University of Goettingen in 1846 at the age of 19, originally to study theology. The University, however, was home to Carl Friedrich Gauss, "the greatest mathematician of his age and possibly of any age," and the impressionable young Riemann, succumbing to the privilege of Gauss's presence and following his already blossoming interest in mathematics, refocused his studies on the area in which he would soon attain distinct immortality. As early as 1851 he was impressing even Gauss with the results of his doctoral dissertation and in 1859 was appointed a corresponding member of the Berlin Academy. To this honor, Riemann responded with his most famous paper, entitled "On the number of prime numbers less than a given quantity," containing therein what became known as the Riemann Hypothesis.

At the heart of the RH is the Zeta function which, in its basic form, looks like this: Z(s)=1 + 1/2^s + 1/3^s + 1/4^s + ... and which, through some simple algebraic manipulation as demonstrated by the mathematically gifted journalist Derbyshire, can be given in the form (1 - 2^-s)^-1 * (1 - 3^-s)^-1 * (1 - 5^-s)^-1 * (1 - 7^-s)^-1 * ... And it is in this second form which Derbyshire calls "The Golden Key" where the non-mathematician gets the first glimpse of the Zeta function's relationship with prime numbers.

But where this Golden Key appears as this "novel's" turning point--its central conflict-- it is not until Prime Obsession's climax when the Key is at last turned and the Zeta function's true relationship to the prime counting function pi(x)--the number of primes less than a given x--is at last made clear. Along the way, from the introduction of the Zeta function to the final explanation of its relevance to prime numbers (the turning of the Key), Derbyshire enlightens us with clear, mostly English language descriptions of the mathematics involved, as well as plentiful anecdotes that give readers a sense of the life and work of the major figures in the history surrounding the RH from Euler, Gauss and Dedekind in the late 18th century through Riemann's 1859 paper, and from 1859 onward to recent advancements in the '80s and '90s.

The Riemann Hypothesis states that "all nontrivial zeros of the Zeta function have real part one-half." Understanding the statement of the hypothesis is Derbyshire's first mission for the reader. In short, most functions with a dependent variable, say f(x)=x^2-2x+1, have a value for which if you replace x with this value, the function returns zero. In the example given, it is at the value x=1 where f(x)=0. The Zeta function has an infinite number of these zeroes and an infinite number of these is "non-trivial." The non-trivial zeroes come from complex number values. Riemann's guess, his hypothesis, is that the real part of each of these non-trivial zeroes is equal to one-half. The imaginary part can be anything.

Derbyshire explains all of the mathematics in very readable language. It's unlikely that anyone who did well in high school mathematics will not be able to follow Derbyshire's mathematics (and it's unlikely that those who didn't do well will pick up a 400-page book on this topic). The Zeta function is explored from a number of angles--numerically, graphically, algebraically, statistically, and there's even a link between the non-trivial zeroes of the Zeta function and quantum physics! By a larger margin, however, Prime Obsession's intrigue lies in Derbyshire's expositions on Riemann, Hilbert, Turing, Gauss, et al, as well as those modern mathematicians he's interviewed personally. The line between the mathematical half of the book and the historical is clearly defined; the odd-numbered chapters are devoted to the former, the even to the latter.

Those fans and foes of Derbyshire's most public line of work as a journalist/editorial writer for National Review will be comforted to know all political polemics have been set aside. John Derbyshire gives a virtuoso performance as an informed journalist and maintains his stance as a personable and careful guide through a sometimes difficult terrain. Anyone with some interest in the topic will find it hard to put down Derbyshire's book once begun. If we are lucky (hint, hint, JD) perhaps Derbyshire's next book will cover the newly-proven Poincare Conjecture ...


You can purchase Prime Obsession: Bernhard Riemann and the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, carefully read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.

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Prime Obsession

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday December 22, 2004 @02:36PM (#11161494)
    Who isn't obsessed with the leader of the Autobots, Optimus Prime?
    • I don't think MegaTron was too obsessed with Optimus Prime. If he was, maybe he would have won a battle or two. After all a gun should stop a truck
  • lay person? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by dAzED1 (33635) on Wednesday December 22, 2004 @02:40PM (#11161540) Homepage Journal
    ...may turn to out to be one of the classics of mathematical literature for the lay-person

    Ummm...what would its peers be? Just how many "classic" math books does the lay-person have now?

    Could it be that the lay-person wouldn't be interested in any book about math, no matter how well written?

    I dunnnoooo...almost sounds completely probable.

    • by thegameiam (671961) <thegameiam@NospAm.yahoo.com> on Wednesday December 22, 2004 @02:46PM (#11161604) Homepage
      Try Mathematics for the Million [amazon.com] by Hogben - it's fantastic, and the most coherent Calculus explanation I've ever encountered.

    • Re:lay person? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Shimmer (3036) <brianberns@gmail.com> on Wednesday December 22, 2004 @02:47PM (#11161608) Homepage Journal
      What a sad, sad assumption: That lay-people have no interest in math.

      Martin Gardner's series of Mathematical Games books certainly qualifies as classic.

      I would put some of Douglas Hofstadter's books in there too. Certainly _Godel, Escher, Bach_ is highly (though not entirely) mathematical.

      Richard Smullyan also has a number of very good math/puzzle books.

      There are others, too, but you get the idea. I don't think you need to be professional mathematician to enjoy any of these.

    • It should become a classic, alongside with this book: Everyday Math For Dummies http://www.dummies.com/WileyCDA/DummiesTitle/produ ctCd-1568842481.html [dummies.com]

    • Re:lay person? (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Mr. Flibble (12943)
      I consider myself a lay person. I always did poory in mathematics because I did not care about it. The reason I did not care, is that throughout high school no one could show me a use for it. Granted, certain function such as compounded interest held me with a grand fascination - but the rest bored me to no end.

      I am always looking for "laypersons" math books, because after reading Richard Feynmans (non-math) works, I want to understand his Physics Lectures.

      As a helpful AC http://slashdot.org/comments.pl?s [slashdot.org]
      • The reason I did not care, is that throughout high school no one could show me a use for it.

        Hey buddy - got six quarters for a dollar?
        Consider yourself "shown".
        • Re:lay person? (Score:4, Interesting)

          by Mr. Flibble (12943) on Wednesday December 22, 2004 @05:49PM (#11163350) Homepage
          Hey buddy - got six quarters for a dollar?
          Consider yourself "shown".


          I am not speaking of general math - rather I am speaking of the esoteric stuff such as "new math" stuff that has no "purpose" other than to be a neat trick.

          I was deeply impressed by Richard Feynmans chapter on his reviewing high school math books. He was livid that a number of things being taught were useless. He wanted the books to teach the students not only what they were learning, but why. One example has him in an uproar because there was a question about taking the average tempurature of a number of stars. This made Feynman angry because there is no reason to get an average star tempurature for a number of stars, it is just not something that you do. Feynman called it "a trick to get the students to add".

          Furthermore, he was furious at a physics problem in one book, that had wrong answers, and in fact, Feynman actually performed the experiment listed in the book, and found out the "observed" results were wrong. The author did not even take the time to DO the experiment listed.

          Again, this made him furious because he felt that teaching students math in a deceptive manner would never give them a feeling as to where the math can take you in fields in the sciences. I agree.

          So, I don't want to learn fluff. I was at a disadvantage because I was just told "learn this" and in answer to the question of "why?" I was only given "so you can pass the exams."

          In high school I deeply wanted the answers to some questions in Physics, that were available with mathematics, but I was not shown these, and I developed an unfortunate disgust with mathematics because of this.

          So many people here on slashdot can take me to task for being bad at math - and I know I am. I don't know if you would have been so interested in it either if it was drilled into you in a dull manner, and a feeling that it lacked a purpose.

          Am I learning math now? Yes, but then I understand much more about the why, the how, and the history now than I did then. I don't know about the rest of you but I detest rote learning. So take me to task on my math skills if you wish (or my typing :) ) but I can see enough in myself that I want to change, and I am making the effort. Not all people can say the same of themselves.
      • throughout high school no one could show me a use for it

        Everything you learned in high-school math was known before the Renaissance.

        EVERYTHING.

        Arithmetic predates civilization. High-school algebra is arguably prehistorical: the solution to the quadratic equation was known to EVERY ancient civilization that left behind written records. Plane geometry was formalized by the Greeks about 2400 years ago. The symbols for the trigonometric functions date back to the 1200s. Given thousands of years of history,
        • I learnt a _lot_ of maths at high school which is post-renaissance - complex numbers, differential and integral calculus, the uses of logarithms, the Binomial Theorem, cartesian coordinate geometry, ... Oh, and we were shown the utility of some of this stuff, at least.

          Of course, this was about 40 years ago, and in Australia. I don't know what they teach young people at school these days (although judging from what my kids were taught, it isn't much).
          • you went to an excellent high school... you must not be american.

            I had to go to the local college to learn calculus, because they didn't even offer it in my high school!
      • I always did poory in mathematics
        Typing, too, apparently. ;)
      • I enjoy math and majored in mathematics but agree that most of the teachers I've had didn't know the power or use of what they were teaching. I had an education-major roomate ask his college math teacher for an application or example real-world use of the math they were learning and to my surprise and sadness the teacher said "Well, suppose someone comes up to you on the street and asks 'what are the roots of this polynomial?' "

        Physics is what made it all work for me. If you get a decent physics teacher,

    • Re:lay person? (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Pacifix (465793)
      I think you're being cruel. Lots of laypersons have intellectual curiosity that may not have been fed either because they were too poor to go on to higher education, there were family problems, whatever. Not everyone who ends up without an education is dumb and uninterested. Lots of people are interested in space travel, chemistry, astronomy - why not math? I have a lady at work who is always asking me questions about some math thing or another she heard about and I've been looking for a good book li
    • A Beutiful Mind was fairly popular, both as a book and as a movie. Not all of the people who read or saw it were mathematicians.

      Besides, he said "for the lay-person", not "read by the lay-person". I can write a book for geeks, that doesn't mean any geek would have to read it.

    • Re:lay person? (Score:2, Insightful)

      by fermion (181285)
      The average person owns few, if any, books. In the US one can often expect the home to have a bible, and perhaps a couple other books, but most people have read very little. They read what they were forced to read in school, the sports section, and perhaps a few magazines written at the 5th grade level. And lest people get pissed about me dissing the sport section, let me state here that we owe a lot to sport section, as it is often written at above a 5th grade level and is likely responsible for the min
  • by MalaclypseTheYounger (726934) on Wednesday December 22, 2004 @02:41PM (#11161548) Journal
    Superior mathematician.

    The answer? 42.

    The question? What is 6 times 9.

    The part he didn't tell you is that the question/answer machine was devised by a group of aliens that had 13 fingers. They wouldn't count in base 10, they would count in base 13, naturally.

    6 x 9 does in fact equal 42. In base 13.
    • Re:Douglas Adams (Score:3, Informative)

      by nebaz (453974)
      Actually the question is
      "What do you get when you multiply six by nine?"

      People have argued that since Arthur Dent got this by picking letters out of his homemade scrabble set at random, that this is impossbile, as there are not 4 Y's in a standard Scrabble set.
      • But that's it.

        That's all there is.
      • i doubt anyone that makes a homemade scrabble set would keep the set number of 'Y' tiles as prescribed by the official version. ... parent could be a HHGTTG joke that i'm not getting though. on slashdot its impossible to tell when someone is being serious and when they're quoting some obscure literature (or the not-so-obscure HHGTTG).
        • Read this [slate.com]. It's a writer's explanation for the need for a sarcasm point as a new form of punctuation.

          I'd show it to you, but Slashdot doesn't seem to want to allow it to be displayed. Glad I previewed the original sarcastic comment about the strict adherence to spelling, grammar and punctuation conventions here on Slashdot.
      • Easy answer: blank tiles
      • Given that Arthur's brain was part of the matrix (Earth), and he made the scrabble tiles himself, is it possible that he was subconciously programmed as to which tiles would be required...

    • Re:Douglas Adams (Score:5, Informative)

      by BaldGhoti (265981) on Wednesday December 22, 2004 @03:00PM (#11161752) Homepage
      Douglas Adams went on record saying that that was a pure coincidence. "I may be a pretty sad person, but I don't make jokes in base 13. [wikipedia.org]"

      Sorry to burst the bubble.
    • It's stated in the books that one can never know both the question and the answer. Having said that, here are two paraphrases (don't have the book handy) from the text:

      Excerpt 1:
      Marvin: I'm roughly 30 billion times smarter than you. Let me give you an example. Pick a number. Any number.
      ??(can't recall name)??: Um...seven?
      Marvin: Wrong. You see?

      Excerpt 2:
      Arthur: I'm still sort of bummed we never figured out that Ultimate Question thing.
      Eddie, Ship's Computer: Pick a number. Any number.

      It's argua
  • Offtopic...rant... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by nebaz (453974) on Wednesday December 22, 2004 @02:41PM (#11161552)
    Why is it, that if you have studied math that people get you these books for Christmas, etc. People say, "Wow, he's into math, I'm sure he'd like that", when books like this are written for the lay person, as a fun introduction to the subject. People don't get Literature majors "Shakespeare for Dummies".
    • by Beardo the Bearded (321478) on Wednesday December 22, 2004 @02:51PM (#11161645)
      People get those gifts because they try. They don't understand math at all, but they know that you do "something mathy".

      I get the same thing all the time. Last year, my mother-in-law got me a put-it-together kinetic flashlight kit for kids. (I'm an Electrical Engineer.) She tried.

      This book might be an interesting read. That's probably what they thought.
      • MOD PARENT UP! (Score:5, Insightful)

        by GuyMannDude (574364) on Wednesday December 22, 2004 @03:37PM (#11162075) Journal

        People get those gifts because they try. They don't understand math at all, but they know that you do "something mathy".

        Exactly right. They are trying to get you something that they think you might like even though they don't know very much about math. Instead of the grandparent getting all hot under the collar that his family and friends dare insult his grant intellect by purchasing him a "Math for Dummies" book (as he seems to think this historical work is), he should feel gratified to know that he family cares enough about him to actually put forth some effort to getting something that attempts to match his interests. There are lots of people who simply buy generic gifts for family like socks or shit like that. Isn't this book a lot better than a gift like that?

        Reading the grandparents rant, I was reminded of an article in The Onion awhile back about some film snob getting all upset because his family -- damn their incompetance! -- dared buy him the widescreen edition of one of the Matrix sequels when he actually wanted the letterboxed edition (opportunity for karma whoring here if someone can link to it). For chrissake, your family and friends are trying their goddamned best and you get your panties in a bunch over details? That's so incredibly childlike, I can hardly believe this above "rant". Christmas isn't really about getting exactly what you want -- at least once you're an adult it's not. Christmas is just an opportunity to get together with loved ones and exchange gifts as a token of affection. It doesn't have to be the "perfect gift"; as long as it's somewhere in the ballpark you should feel happy that your family is at least aware of your interests.

        GMD

    • by Ev0lution (804501) on Wednesday December 22, 2004 @02:57PM (#11161711)
      People don't get Literature majors "Shakespeare for Dummies".

      The problem is that a lack mathematical understanding verging on innumeracy is socially acceptable, cool even. Imagine boasting that you couldn't "do reading", and found books aimed at ten-year-olds too much of a challenge. If that was true, then you wouldn't admit it - but go out to eat with half a dozen friends or workmates, and when it comes to the bill people will cheerfully admit that they're rubbish at Maths and can't divide the total by six. I had one colleague who was impressed that I could divide £45 between seven people...

      Now, if you've ever shown any ability to do any Maths, however basic, from their point of view you're forever "good at Maths". They don't know this book from Landau & Lifshitz, but you're "good at Maths" so you'll like it. Won't you?

      • I had one colleague who was impressed that I could divide £45 between seven people.

        It depends on how many decimal places you calculated to. If you estimated it to be about 6 per person, I'm not too impressed. If you went to two digits (6.42) that's pretty good. Of course, if you had to use pencil and paper, then I'm not impressed at all. ;)
        • It depends on how many decimal places you calculated to.

          Not so much when dividing by seven.

          1/7 = .142857142857...
          2/7 = .285714285714...
          3/7 = .428571428571...
          4/7 = .571428571428...
          5/7 = .714285714285...
          6/7 = .857142857142...

          Of course, depending on your audience, simply knowing that may be enough to impress.

      • Imagine boasting that you couldn't "do reading", and found books aimed at ten-year-olds too much of a challenge.

        Oh, i fear that you'd be surprised to learn how many people are functionally illiterate (ie can't locate two pieces of information in a sports article). I don't know if any of them are willing to admit it, though.

        Another thing is, while practically everyone can speak and read/write in a language, there are still differences in their comprehension ability. Writing skills can also vary greatly --

        • Writing skills can also vary greatly -- and you can see people rather proudly showing their inability to form a sentence or to write any words longer than two syllables ("omg lol u r teh sux!").

          That's a completely grammatical sentence in the dialect it is spoken. All it shows is that the author wasn't trying to communicate in standard formal English. Linguist studies have shown that poorly educated low-class people tend to have a near-perfect command of their language, even if that language is not the st
    • Because it's Christmas, and there is all this pressure to buy SOMETHING for you, even if they have no farging idea what you would like.. they just have to buy something... anything.

      PRESSURE PRESSURE PRESSURE! BUY BUY BUY! STUFF STUFF STUFF!

      Jesus who?
    • After working at Initech for a year and not using any of my math skills, this was a welcome dip in the math kiddie pool.

      I would probably need to do a few laps before I could go playing around near the high-dive again or anything. I don't think this speaks to my grasp of the subject or my intelligence, but to my complete abandonment of study for a long period.

      This wouldn't be a book to get someone that works in a heavily mathematical field, but its a great choice for the coder in your live that likes math
      • Initech, eh? So did you ever get those TPS reports worked out?
      • This wouldn't be a book to get someone that works in a heavily mathematical field...

        Why not? I have a Ph.D. in math from one of the top scientific institutions in the world and I think the book sounds interesting. Quoting from the above review:

        By a larger margin, however, Prime Obsession's intrigue lies in Derbyshire's expositions on Riemann, Hilbert, Turing, Gauss, et al, as well as those modern mathematicians he's interviewed personally. The line between the mathematical half of the book and the hi

    • ... if you don't know (immediately), how can you expect them to know?

      Z
    • People don't get Literature majors "Shakespeare for Dummies".

      No, they don't. They give them children's books instead :7

    • I happen to have studied enough mathematics for MSU to grant me a master's degree and I didn't find Derb's book the equivalent of "Shakespeare for Dummies."

      It was more like the nuts and bolts of how the Bard lived while he was writing Hamlet and how various folks who have come after have interpreted the parts.

      To be quite honest, after doing all those fun maths in school, my career has generally involved little more than algebra. It was a rare pleasure to solve an order 360 polynomial using a secant method
  • Propaganda (Score:3, Insightful)

    by TrollBridge (550878) on Wednesday December 22, 2004 @02:42PM (#11161560) Homepage Journal
    One man's propaganda is another man's editorial opinion.

    Why must we use such slanted terms to describe the views of people we disagree with?

    perhaps I just answered my own question.
    • It's the same reason that anytime you express a conservative opinion you're modded Troll.
    • by jmorris42 (1458) *
      > One man's propaganda is another man's editorial opinion.

      Kinda sad actually. If some frothing deaniac at the NYT or somewhere had written a totally non-political book the editors wouldn't have even found it worth mentioning the 'day' job of the author.

      But then what do I know... I read Derbyshire's NRO columns so I'm irredeemably wicked in the eyes of the /. editors.
    • Why must we use such slanted terms to describe the views of people we disagree with?

      Its what you do to distance yourself from an enemy. Even by using a term like regime instead of government makes the bad guys seem much more different than us, even though the words are very similar and there is nothing inherently bad about a regime. It sure sounds bad, though.
  • by suso (153703) on Wednesday December 22, 2004 @02:44PM (#11161572) Homepage Journal
    You might check out my current MD5hash Challenge [suso.org]. Some people have told me that it is impossible to solve, some have said that mathematically it is solveable.

    Not quite related to primes, but close and can certainly create an obsession. Also, look behind the scenes for something simpler to solve.
    • You might check out my current MD5hash Challenge. Some people have told me that it is impossible to solve, some have said that mathematically it is solveable.

      They're both right. It might be possible to solve, but will certainly require some developments in cryptography that have yet to be made.

      Failing that, a brute force search of all 128 bit inputs would do the job. I wouldn't expect it to finish quickly though.

      All in all, I'd wager that your money's safe for at least the next ten years.
      • Failing that, a brute force search of all 128 bit inputs would do the job. I wouldn't expect it to finish quickly though.

        Actually, it is possible that the problem is unsolvable. You have 2^160 (not 128) inputs, 2^160 outputs. If there is a strict one-to-one mapping, it might not hold true for any pair. Personally, I think I'd be willing to give $50 for a proof that a solution exists at all. A lot more for a proof that a solution didn't exist.

        To demonstrate, I'll use a silly 2 bit "hash" function.

        00->
    • The first file is 92.8 gigs. The second is 14.3 terabytes. I thought I would warn you to clean out your inbox first, so that you don't go over your mailserver quota.

      I also have five more solutions, though they aren't small like the one I'm submitting. I'd be willing to submit them too, though you'll have to buy the HDs and pay freight to have them shipped.

      B) 601.4 petabytes and 993,563,124 exabytes
      C) 886 terabytes* and 221,454,442,899 exabytes
      D) 6.82 x 10^884 exabytes and 1.31 x 10^1019 exabytes
      E) 4.2 gig
  • by kzinti (9651) on Wednesday December 22, 2004 @02:44PM (#11161574) Homepage Journal
    The line between the mathematical half of the book and the historical is clearly defined; the odd-numbered chapters are devoted to the former, the even to the latter.

    It's been a long time since I read Douglas Hofstadter's "Godel, Escher, Bach", but didn't it use the same kind of formula, alternating between dialogs and discussion chapters? I really loved that book. I've heard a lot of criticism of it from mathematicians and musicians, but that noise always sounded like so much professional nitpicking to me.
    • Of Course (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Icephreak1 (267199)

      I've heard a lot of criticism of [Hofstadter's "Godel, Escher and Bach"] from mathematicians and musicians..

      Of course mathematicians and musicians will criticize the book. It challenges the very logical foundations upon which their theories are based. Perhaps the most dogmatic disciplines outside of Christian fundamentalism are the sciences. It's the age old case of man believing his logic is impenetrable, where in reality it amounts to nothing more than the finger pointing to the moon. The sciences
      • Simply put: God is in the details.
      • Due to their highly honed awareness, they are able to acertain more in a ten minute period about the laws of life than ten scientists could over the course of a hundred years.

        Then why didn't they cure polio or smallpox? Why didn't they invent some way to keep juvenile diabetics alive? Why don't they invent someway to cure them now? If they know so much about the laws of life, why don't they use them for the good of humanity?

        This is personal; I've had a close friend ripped from the world at a young age by
      • You make some interesting points, although I fear that you slip into unnecessary obtruseness in places. One or two things that could do with a touch of clarity.

        How exactly does mathematics assert that science could never explore reality fully in an infinite amount of time? Firstly, mathematics does not assert facts about reality, that is the job of the physical sciences. Mathematics operates within an abstract platonic domain indepent of reality - although its conjectures and theorems may have some utility
      • You started out making sense, but then you ended up talking crazy talk.

        First off, just so you know where I'm coming from, I consider myself to be a scientist. My entire philosophy and everything that I know is based on science. This is not because of some sort of fundamental devotion - it is because I haven't discovered a more useful way of looking at things.

        OK, so Godel's theorem shows that for any sufficiently powerful logical system, there are truths about that system that are not theorems. So what?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday December 22, 2004 @02:45PM (#11161588)
    ISBN 0452285259 = 3 * 1009 * 149417

    The author must be sad.
  • Motivation (Score:2, Informative)

    by Juiblex (561985)
    Let serve as motivation the fact that anyone who can actually proof (but not disproof) the Riemann Hipothesis will won a prize of US$ 1E6 (i.e, US$ 1000000.00)!

    • by multiplexo (27356)
      Let serve as motivation the fact that anyone who can actually proof (but not disproof) the Riemann Hipothesis will won a prize of US$ 1E6 (i.e, US$ 1000000.00)!

      Plus chicks will dig you. Yessiree, I'm telling you. If you prove the Riemann Hyphothesis you'll be getting into some prime poontang. If you know what I mean.

  • by JackBuckley (696547) on Wednesday December 22, 2004 @02:50PM (#11161638) Homepage
    It's a minor point, but I have to take issue with the poster's statement that popular math books don't come along often. How about:

    Mathematics And Sex (2004)

    Pi: A Biography of the World's Most Mysterious Number (2004)

    Chance: A Guide to Gambling, Love, the Stock Market and Just About Everything Else (2004)

    Entanglement: The Unlikely Story of How Scientists, Mathematicians, and Philosphers Proved Einstein's Spookiest Theory (2003)

    The Mathematical Century : The 30 Greatest Problems of the Last 100 Years (2003)

    The Golden Ratio : The Story of PHI, the World's Most Astonishing Number (2003)

    When Least Is Best : How Mathematicians Discovered Many Clever Ways to Make Things as Small (or as Large) as Possible (2003)

    The Honors Class: Hilbert's Problems and Their Solvers (2001)

    An Imaginary Tale (1998)

    e: The Story of a Number (1998)

    Just to pick some recent examples (i.e. not including the masterpieces of Martin Gardner and other recreational mathematicians in the 1960s and 70s, and apologies if I left off your favorite). I would agree, however, that good pop-math books are a great deal more rare.

    • Not to forget N. Bourbaki, "Elements de Mathematique".

    • I look at that list and I've heard of two of them. Am I the only person to wonder whether "popular" in your first sentence means "written for the people" rather than "known about by the people"?
      • Good point. What I mean here by popular (and what I think the poster means) is only that the books are written for a general audience--not that they are best sellers by any means. Think of Popular Mechanics, for example. Making math books for the masses by no means implies that the masses will buy them!
  • by daVinci1980 (73174) on Wednesday December 22, 2004 @03:00PM (#11161750) Homepage
    ... f(x)=x^2-2x+1... x=1 where f(x)=0

    It's called white space. Look into it. Humans parse on it much faster then they parse on operators.
    ... f(x) = x^2 - 2x + 1... x = 1 where f(x) = 0
  • My favorite. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by standards (461431) on Wednesday December 22, 2004 @03:17PM (#11161907)
    My favorite book on math is The Mathematical Tourist by Ivars Peterson.

    It's very readable, and has chapters on interesting stuff like knot theory, cellular automata and primes.

    I highly recommend it. It isn't going to turn anyone into a math professor, but it is very interesting reading.
  • by stromthurman (588355) on Wednesday December 22, 2004 @03:24PM (#11161967)
    I know very few mathematicians and math students who aren't familiar with the Riemann Hypothesis (largely due to the million dollar prize associated with its proof), so a book exclusively on such a topic probably wouldn't interest too many people. What makes this book interesting, at least to me, is the Math History covered in it. In particular, the author goes into great depth into the personality and character of each of the principle figures in this book: the anecdote regarding Hilbert's torn pants, Gauss's (perhaps justified) arrogance, and Riemann's quiet nature. All of these aspects of the book add a lot more depth to the people behind this problem, and I find that to be far more valuable, as a mathematician, than yet another essay on the Riemann Hypothesis.

    I agree with the reviewer's sentiment that the book is well written, and it is very enjoyable. The author writes in a very audience-centric fashion, even going as far to discuss the "scaffolding" of the book itself (all of the "hard math" stuff is found in odd chapters, the author had debated putting this information in only the "prime" chapters, but then said "there is such a thing as being too cute.")

    Anywho, if you have a math friend you need to buy a gift for, definitely consider this book.
  • John Derbyshire (Score:2, Informative)

    by JeffWhitledge (675345)
    Those interested in his other writings should check out John Derbyshire's homepage [olimu.com].
  • I just started reading

    The Music of the Primes : Searching to Solve the Greatest Mystery in Mathematics [amazon.com]

    which covers also covers the Riemann Hypothesis.

    Other books I've read in the genre include:

    The Golden Ratio : The Story of PHI, the World's Most Astonishing Number [amazon.com]

    In Code: A Mathematical Journey [amazon.com]

    Fermat's Enigma : The Epic Quest to Solve the World's Greatest Mathematical Problem [amazon.com]

    Euclid's Window : The Story of Geometry from Parallel Lines to Hyperspace [amazon.com]

    Haven't Read this one yet but I own it:

    G [amazon.com]
  • If we are lucky (hint, hint, JD) perhaps Derbyshire's next book will cover the newly-proven Poincare Conjecture

    The lucky part about that would be that someone had finally proved it, and that a consensus of mathematicians accepted the proof. To the best of my knowledge, the current state is that one man claims to have proved it but that the verdict's still out.

    • You are talking about Perelman who seems to have given an outline of a proof of the Thurston Geometrization Conjecture which, I think, contains the Poincaré Conjecture as a special case. So he has allegedly proved something much more general than Poincaré.
  • FREE! (Score:3, Informative)

    by wviperw (706068) on Wednesday December 22, 2004 @11:43PM (#11165599) Homepage Journal
    Can't believe nobody has mentioned this yet (maybe they have?), but this book (I think it is the same book) can be read for free online at the National Academies Press [nap.edu]
    I've started it and it is very good so far. Haven't had time to get past the first few chapters unfortunately.

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