Euclid in the Rainforest by Joseph Mazur, Plume (Penguin, USA), 2006, 336 ff.
by Dr Howard A. Jones (Carmarthen, UK)
This is a book about the history of mathematics presented as a novel: as a result it is eminently readable. It does for mathematics what Sophie's World did for philosophy. Most of the mathematical calculations are confined to the Appendixes and Notes, so there is nothing to seriously intimidate the non-mathematician.
In just a few hundred pages, the author has had to be selective in the topics he covers. For these topics we learn something of the background to the discoveries and the mathematicians who made them. Pythagoras' Theorem, irrational numbers, set theory and non-Euclidean geometry all find a place here. These can seem puzzling to those who have not met them before, but they are presented here in Mazur's easy writing style.
There is also an underlying theme to the book of philosophical issues - how do we assess truth, are there different kinds of truth derived by induction or deduction, what does the concept of infinity really mean, can we resolve the paradoxes of Greek philosopher Zeno, how does the non-realism of mathematics relate to the real natural world, and what degree of certainty emerges from calculations of probability or chance? This last section is particularly well presented anecdotally, as are the other subjects of the book, in terms of journeys the author has made around the world.
This is a very readable book that anybody who enjoys mathematics as much as the author, or even who wants a good selection of stories that are very much more than just pulp fiction, can enjoy.
Dr Howard A. Jones is the author of The Thoughtful Guide to God (2006) and The Tao of Holism (2008), both published by O Books, UK.