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In Pursuit of the Unknown: 17 Equations That Changed the World
Basic Books, 2013
360 pp., 18.99
The Universe in Zero Words: The Story of Mathematics as Told through Equations
Princeton University Press, 2013
224 pp., 19.95
Playing the Numbers
If you're a member of group that gets club oufits, it's typical to personalize the shirts or jackets with a nickname or in-joke. My students often use versions of their names (e.g., "Jules" for Julie), but the names can be more cryptic: a swimmer I knew in high school used "Plecostomus." When I was on the student council, I chose "E=MC2" for the back of my sweatshirt, sure that this was the clearest way to show my identification as a future scientist.
To my chagrin, my choice came off as more puzzling than anything else. It's one thing to be nerdy, but for your nerdiness to not even be intelligible … that's the worst. I got so many questions that, finally, I just stopped wearing it. I had naively figured that most of my contemporaries would have at least seen Einstein's mass-energy equivalence; what about the Cold War, hadn't they heard of nuclear bombs? But this most famous equation was a mystery even to otherwise well-read friends.
The books under review would like to rectify this. The Universe in Zero Words and In Pursuit of the Unknown are books by mathematicians who promise to explain some of the secrets behind the most important equations. The first book, by science writer Dana Mackenzie, leans more toward using equations as a way to tell interesting stories about mathematics, while veteran math popularizer Ian Stewart focuses a lot of time and attention on the background behind, and applications of, these formulas.
Naturally, although each book has around 20 equations as the starting point, the individual chapters range beyond that strictness, with lots of interesting anecdotes about the humanity of those involved as well. Both books have good morsels to offer to the educated "layman"; just who that ideal reader might be, we'll get to in a bit.
In Pursuit of the Unknown has particularly good bites to recommend it. Each chapter is really a self-standing essay, and I believe ...