01/05/2010. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts
pub: Prometheus. 248 page illustrated indexed small hardback. Price: $ 26.00 (US), £21.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-59102-773-7.
check out website: www.prometheusbooks.com
Last year, I reviewed Peter Rudman's 'How Mathematics Happened' as a book to be added to my Science Fiction Nomenclature science chapter (you'll see it some time soon on-site). This year, 'The Babylonian Theorem' arrived on my doorstep. Even a quick scan through the pages made me think that some of you people are going to be struggling here. Rudman's fun idea of maths posers definitely will. Saying, that, if you treat those aspects as being the proofs to verify what he is saying then you can concentrate on the text which is essentially the history of algebra.
For those who don't know or have to think back to their school days, algebra is the means to bring things like object volume and trigonometry into formulas. Know what some of these values are and a manipulation of the formula makes it very easy to find the solution. Looking at how the Babylonians, Greeks and Egyptians did them is really the start of modern mathematics. If you're in awe of how the Egyptians built their pyramids, then it's easier to see how they had mathematical help in building them.
Algebra really grew up with language and a need to represent size in a convenient form. Rudman has examples of the numbering system using base 60 as opposed to base 10 as we do today and these people didn't fully understand the use of the zero at that time. Algebra definitely made things easier. Remnants of base 60 can be seen in how we measure time, angles and such so it wasn't exactly a number chosen out of thin air. The use of algebra also enabled abstract vision of seeing relationships with dimensions and angles. If you're world-building, then understanding how our own ancestors developed this can be of use to you in determining how smart your creations are.
Rudman elegantly brings you up to speed on Pythagoras' Theorem in a very graphic way before playing around with various triangle configurations before developing it into three-dimensional objects. There's a good quote from Einstein that stuck with me, 'Make it simple, not simpler', inferring that reality doesn't use complicated rules. He even broaches on religion and a translation error of the book of Genesis. Those interested ought to look at the Anchor Bible.
Although this book will not be everyone's cup of whatever you drink, you do come away from this book with a deeper appreciation of the development of mathematics and how much of it we take for granted today. Rudman's writing style will sink under your skin and let you soak up the knowledge. If you have more time, you will probably sink your teeth into his quiz questions but don't try doing them in your head. An interesting read.
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