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The Mathematical Universe: An Alphabetical Journey Through the Great Proofs, Problems, and Personalities [Hardcover]

William Dunham
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Aug. 11 1994
"Dunham writes for nonspecialists, and they will enjoy his piquant anecdotes and amusing asides -- Booklist

"Artfully, Dunham conducts a tour of the mathematical universe. . . he believes these ideas to be accessible to the audience he wants to reach, and he writes so that they are." -- Nature

"If you want to encourage anyone's interest in math, get them The Mathematical Universe."
* New Scientist

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The Mathematical Universe is a solid collection of short essays, with each addressing a particular mathematical topic. Titles range from "Isoperimetric Problem" to "Where Are the Women?" Author Dunham is unafraid to refer to diagrams, equations, and rigorous arguments throughout the book, yet he manages to maintain a conversational tone. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

From Library Journal

Like John Allen Paulos's Beyond Numeracy (LJ 4/1/91), this is an A-to-Z collection of mathematical essays. The advantage of this format is that it lets the author hit the highlights in essays that can be read independently. This collection is less cantankerous than Paulos's, and it is also somewhat more focused and mathematically challenging, though still written for a popular audience. Dunham (Journey Through Genius: The Great Theorems of Mathematics, Wiley, 1990) is winner of the 1993 George Polya Award for excellence in math writing, an honor he richly deserves. He is fascinated by the nature of mathematical genius, and the theme of these essays is the personality and eccentricities of mathematicians and the brilliance of their discoveries. For sophisticated readers who don't mind equations (including algebra, geometry, and calculus), this is a rewarding and entertaining look at the history of mathematics.
Amy Brunvand, Fort Lewis Coll. Lib., Durango, Col.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
4.6 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Delightful Journey Sept. 29 2001
As the book's subtitle suggests, it is a journey through some of the world's greatest mathematical achievements. It is a collection of quasi-independent essays, loosely patterned after children's ABC picture books.
For me there were two things that made this book a joy to read. One was that, as the preface states, "each chapter provides a strong dose of history." This way each topic was considered in some human context that revealed just how remarkable its development was. The other trait I liked was that while each chapter followed the same basic formula, i.e., some history and then some math, no two chapters were presented in the same way. Thus, Dr. Dunham was able to avoid predictability.
Though the mathematics in this book was not terribly challenging, the reader should be fairly mathematically inclined. The historical periods covered were weighted in favor of the classical Greeks and the 17th century Europeans, and the corresponding developments paralleled current curricula through lower division college math courses.
On the minus side, I would like to have seen a bibliography in addition to the notes at the back of the book.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Review by a mathematics professor Feb. 23 2002
By William
William Dunham's work is of the highest caliber. He not only knows the techniques of writing and making the best use of language but he also knows the math without question. The book is extremely well-organized with a reasonable number of math examples but not so many as to "clog" the flow of the writing and the stories about the discoverers of the great math sequences. This book is, I think, very much worth the price being asked. Very enjoyable reading and one can even use it for study if necessary, such as when writing a thesis.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mysteries of the Mathematical Universe Unraveled Aug. 30 2001
Dunham cites John Locke's opinion of math: "Mathematical proofs, like diamonds, are hard as well as clear" (page 115). The books presents a number of such hard and clear proofs. Dunham's facility as a writer makes this book enjoyable and creates the kind of historical context necessary to appreciate the importance of mathematical achievements. The book is erudite, educational, and enjoyable.
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4.0 out of 5 stars A fun way to do ABCs March 9 2003
After reading this book, one wishes that the cardinality of the English alphabet was much larger. That way, there would have been more letters and hence more chapters. Each of the twenty-five chapters deals with a theme that begins with a letter of the alphabet (X- Y plane is one chapter). Some poetic license is taken here. For example, the K chapter has the title Knighted Newton, but that is just part of the fun.
The author takes an approach that differs from most popular expositions in that there is a good deal of emphasis on the personalities (sometimes cantankerous) of the characters. Mathematicians are often portrayed as brilliant air heads ignorant of the ways of humanity, but here they have all of the human foibles. It is sadly true that intellectual battles are among the most viscous of all. The cross-channel dispute over the origins of calculus lasted for decades and was extremely acrimonious. It took less time for nations to kiss and make up after wars that killed millions of people than it did for the mathematical communities of Britain and France to "resolve" the priority dispute between Newton and Liebniz.
Familial rivalry reached extreme heights (lows) in the Bernoulli family, as at times solving was placed in second position behind squabbling. However, many of the personalities were quite ordinary . Pierre Fermat was in many ways an ordinary member of the French bureaucracy whose life outside mathematics seems to have been quite dull. The most prolific mathematician of all time, Leonhard Euler, was a quite likable father of many children who managed to perform superb mathematics even after going blind.
There is a slithering humorous vein coursing throughout the book, occasionally good but most often a member of the groaner set.
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In this follow-on to his excellent "Journey Through Genius", William Dunham once again breathes life into a variety of mathematical topics. Whereas "Journey" was arranged around 12 great mathematical theorems, this book is arranged around the 26 letters of the alphabet. Some chapters cover the work of individuals (e.g., "Euler", "Knighted Newton", "Lost Leibniz", and "Russell's Paradox"), while others describe important mathematical results (e.g., "Isoperimetric Problem", "Spherical Surface", and "Trisection"). Still others, such as "Mathematical Personality" and "Where are the Women?", address social aspects of the field.
As in the previous book, Dunham's descriptions are entertaining and enlightening. The main difference is that this book has broader coverage. As a result, it tends to omit more of the proofs, which I found disappointing, but perhaps that will make it of interest to a wider audience. For people with a deeper interest in mathematics, I recommend you read either "Journey Through Genius" or "Euler: The Master of Us All", another Dunham masterpiece that includes detailed proofs throughout.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent
Excellent book that gives us a synopsis of the history of maths from early days. The only criticism I found (and no doubt other readers and the author) is that by virtue of the... Read more
Published on Oct. 10 2003
5.0 out of 5 stars Very Entertaining and informative
This book is perhaps the most entertaining popularization I ever came across.The book uses a minimum of mathematical technics to explain a lot of interesting problems and the... Read more
Published on May 4 2003 by Francisco Coutinho
5.0 out of 5 stars Road Map to the Mathematical World
Most books written by mathematical scholors tend to be boring and straightforward. Dunham, on the other hand, knows how to tell a story along with demonstating the intricate world... Read more
Published on April 26 2002 by John Williams
4.0 out of 5 stars Very good to a point!
Well written and relatively informative book, which I really enjoyed reading.
The only (minor) quibble is that a couple of the sections .. Read more
Published on March 4 2002 by Gerard Fagan
4.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful Journey Through The Greatest Of Arts
William Dunham has exercised wonderful judgement in a book this thin, making sure that maths, history, biography, and personalities appear in good measure. Read more
Published on Feb. 20 2002 by Krishnan Mani
5.0 out of 5 stars A Magnificent Overview
I first read this book a number of years ago and recently read it again. I still think it is a magnificent overview of basic mathematics. Read more
Published on Nov. 11 2000 by Timothy Haugh
4.0 out of 5 stars A nice book, but not Dunhams best.
I have now read Dunhams 'Journey through Genius', 'Euler, the master of us all' and 'The Mathematical Universe'. Read more
Published on Aug. 5 2000
3.0 out of 5 stars Good, but lacking in depth
Although I enjoyed this book, particularly the historical accounts of mathematical figures, I was disappointed with the lack of mathematical depth with which the subjects were... Read more
Published on Dec 19 1999
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