Title: Infinite Ascent: A Short History of Mathematics, by David Berlinski
Completed: January 29, 2012 (#8)
Recommendation: Brevity is the soul of wit
A Superfluous Man first ran across David Berlinski–an affiliate of a pro-Intelligent Design Center foundation called the Center Science and Culture, not to mention a dead-ringer for John Malkovich–in an Uncommon Knowledge episode devoted to touting Mr. Berlinski’s latest work contra atheism, The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions:
Not feeling sufficiently polemical at the time to tackle yet another foray into this most fraught of topics, I opted instead for Mr. Berlinski’s earlier work on the history of mathematics. Trained as a mathematician–but preferring to think of himself as a writer–Mr. Berlinski has produced a fine volume, as brief as the title advertises.
One is as struck by the unassailable genius of those whose lives and work Mr. Berlinski chronicles…
When the great Indian prodigy Srinivasa Ramanujan lay dying in a London hospital, the cold English winters eating his lungs away now ending his life, his friend, the mathematician G. H. Hardy, paid him a visit. Paralyzed by his own reticence, Hardy could think only to blurt out the number of the taxi that had brought him to the hospital—1729, as it happens. “I don’t suppose it is a very interesting number,” he added. “Oh, no, Hardy,” Ramanujan replied at once, “it is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways.”
…as one is by Mr. Berlinski’s blasé mordancy:
But the Romans possessed no mathematical gift whatsoever, their incompetence as striking as it would have been had classical Greek culture given out directly to modern-day Rwanda or the Sudan.
Mr. Berlinski’s style may be too precious for some, and his fetish for ellipses (“What a wonderful instrument trailing dots turns out to be, with ever so many literary techniques abbreviated in their dainty drumbeat: foreshortening, far shadowing, fast forwarding; they are an invitation, those dots, a guide to romance, a tease, a sign of the imponderables to come.”) may deter the mathematically timid from tracing the proofs that are integral to this story (pun intended).
Nevertheless, an elegant introductory tome that observes (in the main) the great Stephen Hawking’s famous axiom from A Brief History of Time that “each equation…included [in a work of popular science] would halve the sales.”