|publisher||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|summary||How to imagine imaginary numbers like the square root of minus fifteen.|
Much of modern mathematical literature is structured with crisp, scripted precision. First there is theorem one, then theorem two, which leads to theorem three, which could only be followed by theorem four, and so on until we reach theorem n. If you want to learn the mathematics of complex numbers (a +bi), then classic texts (this or this) will get you there.
Some may like this logical progression, but it leaves others cold in the same way that crisp, modern architecture by Mies van de Rohe leaves some craving a more layered, fractured, ornate, organic and just plain fun place to live and work. Less isn't more, as Robert Venturi said, less is a bore.
If you happen to feel a chill when churning through an assembly line of theorems, you might enjoy the treatment of Mazur, a professor at Harvard who seems to spend as much time reading poets like Rilke or Stevens as he does examining old mathematical texts. Mazur is not the kind of machine that turns coffee into theorems-- he's too busy stopping to smell the rhetorical flourishes.
The book isn't aimed at mathematicians per se. The publisher, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux specializes in mainstream literature and that's probably the best pigeonhole for this book. Mazur wants the reader to understand how to think about imaginary numbers, not evaluate some integrals -- and that reader could really be anyone with the desire to think about mathematical things. The book is simple enough to be accessible to most who will be interested in it.
In many ways, Mazur attempted a much harder task than just teaching complex analysis. It's one thing to learn how to find the roots of polynomials, but it's another thing to try to help people get a feeling or an intuition for the square root of minus fifteen. Integers are easy to understand and even feel by counting out things, but imaginary numbers don't seem to exist. Mathematicians have spent many years trying to find the best metaphors and structures to understand how to find answers for all polynomials and it's never been an easy struggle.
The best part of the book is, without doubt, the historical treatment of how other mathematicians confronted the question of irrational and complex numbers. These ideas have always been hard to grasp and it took time to evolve the most compact and consistent nomenclature.
If you're interested in mathematics as more than just a mechanism that churns out answers, you'll probably enjoy the book. It's a light, friendly, philosophical expedition looking for a way to make imaginary numbers work in our minds.
Peter Wayner is the author of Translucent Databases , a book on how to imagine databases that hold no information yet still do useful work. You can purchase Imagining Numbers from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.