The Story of Mathematics

by Richard Mankiewicz

Published by Cassell & Co

192 pages, 2001


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Living Arithmetic

Reviewed by Claude Lalumière

 

Richard Mankiewicz had a great idea. He set out to write "the history of mathematics in an accessible style" by combining the written comments of influential mathematicians with sketches of key historical periods and a flowing narrative on the development of mathematical ideas. He wanted to show how "every facet of human activity" has "felt the influence of mathematics and all in turn have influenced the concerns of mathematicians." His project would be illustrated with photographs and reproductions of important historical mathematical artifacts and, clearly most dear to him, the visual representations of mathematical ideas made possible by modern computers. His book would celebrate that mathematics is "about ideas: ideas of space, of time, of numbers, of relationships" whose "sophistication and subtlety [mirror] humanity's quest for knowledge." The result is a handsome hardcover volume, The Story of Mathematics, which sadly falls short of its admirable goals.

In the foreword, mathematician Ian Stewart (author of Nature's Numbers) laments that mathematics, for most people, is associated with school only. He points out the role that mathematics has had in mapmaking, navigation, art, radio, television, agriculture and other human endeavors. He applauds The Story of Mathematics for its "simple and comprehensible manner," for being "a book for everybody." However, this is where Mankiewicz' book fails the most. Too much of the text is mired in jargon indecipherable to anyone not already intimately familiar with these concepts; i.e., despite the author's stated intentions, this is a book whose accomplishments can only be appreciated by those who already understand mathematics' place in the human universe. Ironically, this book is too basic to provide meaty reading for those already in the know, but too oblique and vague for the lay reader to grasp.

Mankiewicz frequently gets fired up by his own enthusiasm over the ideas and events he presents. Unfortunately, more often than not, he fails to communicate the nature of the link between the mathematical ideas and historical events he juxtaposes. He hints at much, but overestimates the mathematical savoir-faire of non-specialist readers. Curiosity and even love of mathematics are not enough to penetrate this text. Mankiewicz forgets that lay readers are not necessarily conversant with his specialized vocabulary and the implications of complex mathematical formulas. He makes little effort to vulgarize the discoveries and accomplishments of the many mathematicians whose life and work he showcases.

Mankiewicz' text is filled with declarations about how, for example, there are diverging mathematical systems and how mathematics has revolutionized human culture, but he rarely takes the time to explain these statements, or at least to explain them in terms intelligible to non-mathematicians. However, some of the later chapters, for example "Mathematics and Modern Art," come much closer to achieving the author's goals. The Story of Mathematics cries out for sidebars to define key concepts and illustrate with detailed examples the points Mankiewicz so earnestly wants to put across.

This book is a beautiful object: elegantly laid out and generously adorned with crisp -- and always pertinent -- illustrations. My one beef with the design is that all the quotes are in a font that requires all too much work to read. Fortunately, Mankiewicz' narrative, the bulk of the text, does not suffer from this regrettable condition.

The Story of Mathematics was obviously conceived and written with both passion and the best of intentions. Unfortunately, the result winds up reinforcing the very situation the author set out to decry: that mathematics is perceived as an arcane, impenetrable discipline that might as well be gibberish to the uninitiated. | June 2001

 

Claude Lalumière is a January Magazine contributing editor and the comics columnist for Black Gate. He founded popular 1990s Montreal bookshops danger! and Nebula. His published criticism can be found on his Web site.