Review of A Strange Wilderness: The Lives of the Great Mathematicians by

Book cover for A Strange Wilderness: The Lives of the Great Mathematicians

Part of my goal as a teacher is to expose my students to the wider world of mathematics, to impress upon them that math is more than just skills and concepts they learn out of a textbook in the fulfilment of curriculum expectations. I want to make the usefulness and purpose of all that math explicit—and I want to go even further and show that math can be beautiful. Finally, it’s important to provide a sense of history and context to all this math. Because the history of mathematics—and the lives of those caught up in it—is intensely fascinating. Or at least I find it so. Stories of love, betrayal, comedy, and tragedy pervade story of math. Because doing math is ultimately an act of discovery and of creativity—and those acts are what make us human.

Amir D. Aczel recognizes this in A Strange Wilderness, which is a history of mathematics disguised as a biography of mathematicians. He makes it his mission to relate the stories behind the math, such as Pythagoras’ travels and interesting diet to Archimedes’ famous bathtub epiphany. (Lucky for me, my Grade 8s had not heard the Eureka! story, despite having just concluded their unit on fluids. So I got to tell it to them for the first time!) This is a laudable goal, and one that coincides with my own. Owing to the way it’s taught in school, we often treat mathematics like received wisdom, far more than we do even science. Mathematical concepts just exist, passed down to us by the teacher and the textbook. It’s difficult, if you don’t actually go out and look for it, to realize that someone had to ask the questions and make the leaps that gave us these concepts. These people were all living, breathing individuals at some point in history, with the same mundane concerns as any human being. For reason, though, through a combination of genius and effort and luck, they made a lasting contribution to our wealth of knowledge as a species.

Aczel brings a wealth of knowledge and enthusiasm to this endeavour. I discovered a lot of cool things about names I already knew, and I met a few fresh faces as well. I marvelled at the chain of events that led to people like Isaac Newton becoming the juggernauts of their day. Newton’s mother, after abandoning him for a new husband, apparently pulled him out of grammar school to live on a farm. It was only through the intervention of his uncle that he returned to finish his education and end up at Cambridge. I shudder to imagine how history would have played out differently if Newton had stayed on a farm!

Of course, a book this size can’t do justice to the history of mathematics or all the mathematicians involved in it. Aczel seems to do his best to hit the high notes. That being said, he makes some curious decisions about who to leave out. In particular, the book seems to start off strong but lose steam, and by the time we reach the twentieth century, great minds like Lebesgue, Zermelo, Russell, Hilbert, and Gödel get cameos if they’re mentioned at all. I don’t know if this is just a consequence of the rather dense nature of twentieth-century mathematics compared to the previous centuries or if Aczel was worried about the complicated nature of the math. Certainly he focuses less on the math itself and more on the mathematicians, as is the case with the final mathematician, the reclusive Alexander Grothendieck. I guess you can’t please everyone, of course, and Aczel does his best while trying to keep the book to a manageable length.

As you might be able to tell, I’m passionate about the history of mathematics. While I’m sure Aczel is too, I have to confess that the stories in this book come across much drier than they should. Maybe it’s a result of reading so many short biographies back to back—it’s just a steady diet of mathematical dessert. Whatever the reason, as much as I enjoyed A Strange Wilderness in small doses, it took me longer to read than I expected. There’s something to be said for books with narrower scopes and their ability to take a detailed look at the lives of a select few.

In combination with other resources, for it is certainly not exhaustive, A Strange Wilderness is a fine book on the history of mathematics. People who aren’t that familiar with (or comfortable) with math shouldn’t have a problem reading this book. Aczel will often discuss the details of the mathematics that his featured geniuses discovered. However, he characterizes the most esoteric items (like group theory) in very general terms, and even when he gets a little more specific (such as with his discussion of Leibniz and Newton’s calculus), it’s never too technical. The math in this math book consists mostly of shout-outs, an understanding of which is far from essential for enjoying this book.

As usual, it comes down to what you want out of your mathematics book. If, like me, your interest in the history of mathematics burns bright and you’re familiar with quite a few of these lives already, then there are probably better books dealing with more specific topics. You can certainly discover new things in this book, but it won’t blow you away. This is definitely a good starting point, however, for those who know that mathematics has some interesting stories to tell but just aren’t sure where to find them.

Engagement

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