Unknown Quantity

Author: John Derbyshire
Year: 2006
Genre: Science history

I like math. I was a math minor in college, and would have double-majored if I could have taken math classes on my junior year abroad. In high school I was really good at math, but when I took honors math classes in college I was just good enough to hang on for the ride. I realized that, as much as I enjoyed learning about group theory, complex analysis, and the search for really big prime numbers, I wasn't good enough to do it professionally. Sadly, if you don't live in that world full-time, it's astonishingly difficult to keep up with it at all, and so I let my math lapse after graduation.

Unknown Quantity is a rare exception: a book about math and math history made accessible to the interested layperson. And Derbyshire doesn't just write about math; he writes about algebra, possibly the most abstract and conceptually challenging branch of theoretical mathematics. By covering the history of algebra over the last 6000 years or so, the book follows how emerging awareness of numbers in ancient Babylonia led to the Greeks, the Renaissance, and the algebra that most people remember (or don't) from high school. Then, in the 17th and 18th centuries, algebra took a sharp turn to the abstract, but Derbyshire makes clear connections to show how it evolved from more representational problems. He challenged me, but he never lost me entirely.

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