Unknown Quantity: A Real and Imaginary History of Algebra

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9780452288539: Unknown Quantity: A Real and Imaginary History of Algebra

For curious nonmathematicians and armchair algebra buffs, John Derbyshire discovers the story behind the formulae, roots, and radicals. As he did so masterfully in Prime Obsession, Derbyshire brings the evolution of mathematical thinking to dramatic life by focusing on the key historical players. Unknown Quantity begins in the time of Abraham and Isaac and moves from Abel?s proof to the higher levels of abstraction developed by Galois through modern-day advances. Derbyshire explains how a simple turn of thought from ?this plus this equals this? to ?this plus what equals this?? gave birth to a whole new way of perceiving the world. With a historian?s narrative authority and a beloved teacher?s clarity and passion, Derbyshire leads readers on an intellectually satisfying and pleasantly challenging journey through the development of abstract mathematical thought.

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About the Author:

John Derbyshire is a mathematician and linguist by education, a systems analyst by profession, and a celebrated writer in his spare time. His work appears frequently in National Review and The New Criterion. Born and raised in England, he has made his home in the United States for the past fifteen years.

From Publishers Weekly:

This book's title is deceiving, for Derbyshire offers a very real and very entertaining survey of the development of algebra. "Real" and "imaginary" refer to types of numbers, and Derbyshire (Prime Obsession) opens with a basic primer on the various flavors of numbers and polynomials before looking at algebra's development over 3,000 years. As he explains how algebraic notation wended its way from Sumerian scratches on clay to such contemporary mathematical structures as Calabi-Yau manifolds (used by Andrew Wiles to solve Fermat's Last Theorem), Derbyshire introduces readers to the colorful figures who made contributions: Hypatia, whose death in Alexandria at the hands of an angry Christian mob marked the end of mathematics in the ancient world; 19th-century mathematician Hermann Grassmann, who published a 3,000-page translation of the ancient Hindu text the Rig Veda after his work on vector spaces was ignored; and Emanuel Lasker, more famous as the longest-reigning world chess champion than for his contributions to ring theory. This book will appeal to readers who relished the rigorous mathematical discursions interspersed with informal historical vignettes of David Berlinski's A Tour of the Calculus, but less mathematically inclined readers more interested in the history of science will also enjoy it. (May)
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