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Brief History of Infinity: The Quest to Think the Unthinkable [Paperback]

Brian Clegg
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
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Book Description

1 Sep 2003 A Brief History of
'Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the street to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space.' - Douglas Adams, "Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy". We human beings have trouble with infinity - yet infinity is a surprisingly human subject. Philosophers and mathematicians have gone mad contemplating its nature and complexity - yet it is a concept routinely used by schoolchildren. Exploring the infinite is a journey into paradox. Here is a quantity that turns arithmetic on its head, making it feasible that 1 = 0. Here is a concept that enables us to cram as many extra guests as we like into an already full hotel. Most bizarrely of all, it is quite easy to show that there must be something bigger than infinity - when it surely should be the biggest thing that could possibly be. Brian Clegg takes us on a fascinating tour of that borderland between the extremely large and the ultimate that takes us from Archimedes, counting the grains of sand that would fill the universe, to the latest theories on the physical reality of the infinite. Full of unexpected delights, whether St Augustine contemplating the nature of creation, Newton and Leibniz battling over ownership of calculus, or Cantor struggling to publicise his vision of the transfinite, infinity's fascination is in the way it brings together the everyday and the extraordinary, prosaic daily life and the esoteric. Whether your interest in infinity is mathematical, philosophical, spiritual or just plain curious, this accessible book offers a stimulating and entertaining read.

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Brief History of Infinity: The Quest to Think the Unthinkable + Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea + "e": The Story of a Number (Princeton Science Library)
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Product details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Robinson Publishing (1 Sep 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1841196509
  • ISBN-13: 978-1841196503
  • Product Dimensions: 19.4 x 13 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 182,504 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Brian's most recent book is Extra Sensory. He has written many other science titles, including the bestselling Inflight Science, The God Effect, Before the Big Bang, Ecologic, A Brief History of Infinity, Build Your Own Time Machine, The Universe Inside You, Gravity and Dice World.

Born in Rochdale, Lancashire, UK, Brian read Natural Sciences (specializing in experimental physics) at Cambridge University. After graduating, he spent a year at Lancaster University where he gained a second MA in Operational Research, a discipline developed during the Second World War to apply mathematics and probability to warfare and since widely applied to business problem solving.

From Lancaster, he joined British Airways, where he formed a new department tasked with developing hi-tech solutions for the airline. His emphasis on innovation led to working with creativity guru Dr. Edward de Bono, and in 1994 he left BA to set up his own creativity consultancy, running courses on the development of ideas and the solution of business problems. His clients include the BBC, the Met Office, Sony, GlaxoSmithKline, the Treasury, Royal Bank of Scotland and many others.

Brian has also written regular columns, features and reviews for numerous magazines and newspapers, including The Observer, Playboy, Nature, The Times, Personal Computer World, BBC History, Good Housekeeping and House Beautiful. His books have been translated into many languages, including German, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, Polish, Norwegian, and Indonesian.

Brian has given sell-out lectures at the Royal Institution in London and has spoken at venues from Oxford and Cambridge Universities to Cheltenham Festival of Science. He has also contributed to radio and TV programs, and is a popular speaker at schools. Brian is also editor of the successful www.popularscience.co.uk book review site and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Brian lives in Wiltshire with his wife and twin children. When not writing, he spends time on music, having a passion for Tudor and Elizabethan church music.

Product Description

About the Author

Brian Clegg is author of the highly acclaimed Light Years and The First Scientist. While working for British Airways he set up the Emerging Technologies Group, responsible for researching cutting-edge technologies. He currently runs his own creative consultancy business.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An easy way to infinity 10 May 2006
Format:Paperback
I was a little disappointed that works and discoveries about infinity was not treated in more detail. Instead, many of the pages are used for biographies; The life and doings of a lot of mathematicians are covered from childhood to death. This of course can be (or is) very interesting, but was not what I excpected. I also got a feeling that this was done in part to avoid writing more about infinity, which of course is a much more difficult topic. The book is intended for a reader with little mathematical background, and this may be the reason why the author avoids difficult questions. There are good and readable presentations of some of the wellknown paradoxes, which should make everyone wonder about the strange behavior when we move away from the finite experience.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars PUSHING BACK THE BOUNDARIES OF THINKING 30 Oct 2003
Format:Paperback
This excellent book helps readers get their minds around one of the most difficult concepts in the world if not the universe. The author approaches the subject of INFINITY from a number of fascinating angles and takes us through a historical journey to demonstrate how philosophers and mathematicians from Zeno, Plato and Aristotle through Galileo to Einstein, Leibniz and Hilbert have grappled with this most unthinkable of problems. I found this book thoroughly thought-provoking, highly stimulating and immensely rewarding. It enriched my knowledge and helped me push back the boundaries of my own thought processes.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant tour of the infinite 15 Oct 2003
Format:Paperback
I came across this book at the author's lecture at the Royal Institution in London. It works well because it tells the story of infinity, bringing in the people, not just concentrating on the maths. The writing's not too technical but challenging enough to make you think. Just a great book.
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25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great history, shame about the maths. 8 Jan 2004
Format:Paperback
Sorry to be a wet blanket among all these favourable reviews, but none are from readers who know the maths. And I am afraid Mr Clegg gets some of it wrong (or at least, so simplifies it that it becomes positively misleading). There is much in the book to enjoy but I think it regrettable that a book which deals with one of the most fascinating areas of mathematics should mislead its readers on some of the key issues.
This is particularly annoying in two of the most important parts of the modern theory. Firstly, his explanation of the higher alephs is so inadequate that all subsequent discussion of the continuum hypothesis is meaningless. Even more annoying is his simplification of Godel's Incompleteness Theorem to the extent that he gets both the interpretation and the methodology wrong. You cannot discuss Godel's results without first introducing the notion of Consistency; a mathematical system is of no value unless it's axioms are consistent. Mr Clegg quotes the sentence 'This system of mathematics can't prove this statement is true.' He comments "If the system proves this statement, then it can't prove it." That's not the case. If the system proves the statement then the system has proved something which isn't true. So the system is inconsistent and therefore worthless. If, as we hope, the system is consistent then it cannot prove the statement. But that's precisely what the statement says, so the system has been unable to prove something which is nonetheless true! This is the real beauty and brilliance of Godel's insight.
I would not want these comments to discourage anyone from reading this book but I would like the reader to realise that the underlying maths is much richer and more beautiful than is conveyed here.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars There are better works around 5 Jan 2008
Format:Paperback
If I'd not read Rucker's work on the subject (Infinity and The Mind), I might have thought this was pretty cool. But having said that, we may be reaching saturation point on the books about mathematicians (which this seems to be) - we need more about the *maths*.

I think there's a perception that to keep it readable it needs to be dumbed down. There's a lot of that going on. It's possible to explain *everything* in simple terms if you try hard enough. Maybe Clegg hasn't tried all that hard, or maybe he's scared of alienating the casual reader. Whatever, he doesn't do much for the mathematically literate who want to get something out of this. There's not actually all that much.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent 25 Jan 2005
Format:Paperback
This is a very interesting and informative description of the history of infinity.
Infinity is a fascinating (and complex) subject but Brian Clegg does an extremely good job of presenting it in a highly readable and essentially non-mathematical way. I have a mathematical background but this book should be accessible to all.
I tend to agree with the previous reviewer who criticised presentation of some of the more complex mathematics in particular the higher alephs and Godel. However, I do not believe that these issues significantly detracted from my enjoyment of the book (mainly because I had not expectation that they would be covered well).
An excellent popular science/mathematics book - highly recommended to all
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars could do with more descriptions 2 Dec 2011
By Ter
Format:Paperback
Could do with more descriptions describing the various thoughts. I think what fails to come through is just how big some of the theoretical steps were. The book covers a very lengthy span of time. We are used to major change happening quite quickly; whereas some of the changes in the way this subject matter is considered took lifetimes to come to fruition. I would have liked some more descriptions of what we think infinity means.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars More history than maths
Tends not to go into the mysteries and maths of Infinity but focuses a lot on the history of the main characters involved in the maths etc. Read more
Published 2 months ago by silvermole
4.0 out of 5 stars Gives the Brain a Challenge
Some old stuff revisited of course but with this background it starts to challenge the brain to think about other options.
Would recommend it as a starter book.
Published 3 months ago by P. J. Roberts
2.0 out of 5 stars I was dissapointed
I hate to be negative, but this didn't do it for me. I found the writing style a bit boring, and it did nothing to bring the subject to life. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Michael Hughes
4.0 out of 5 stars Not an easy topic!
This book did not really get going for me until about half way through when they started explaining the Newton/Liebnitz conflict. Read more
Published 13 months ago by Biro
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best science books I have ever read
I am a fairly incessant reader of popular books about quantum physics, relativity and related issues and the pure mathematics that go with them. Read more
Published 22 months ago by Midlander
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating
A fascinating book on the development of the mathematical understanding of infinity, enlivened with accounts of some of the key personalities. Read more
Published on 30 July 2010 by M. F. Cayley
3.0 out of 5 stars To infinity and beyond .................
There is almost a pun in the title: how can you have a brief history of infinity? However, this book by Brian Clegg is part of a series, so it is stretching bounds of probability... Read more
Published on 14 Jun 2006 by Mr P R Morgan
4.0 out of 5 stars definitely worth reading
I'm no mathematician but still really enjoyed this book. There were bits I didn't understand (some of the set theory ideas, and the proof for aleph-1), but even so it scratched an... Read more
Published on 30 Mar 2006
5.0 out of 5 stars Hits the (infinite) spot
I was given this at Christmas, and thought it did just what it said on the tin - a brief history of infinity. If I have one criticism it's that it's a bit short. Read more
Published on 25 Mar 2004 by "paul_cullen5"
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