A few weeks ago, I railed against David Berlinski’s A Tour of the Calculus – that pretentious, overwritten and exasperating treatment of mathematics left me disillusioned about the effectiveness of the popular maths genre. This view was obviously extreme, given that I had recently read two wonderful books: In Code by the charming father-daughter team of David and Sarah Flannery, and Simon Singh’s superbly researched Fermat’s Enigma. Still, Berlinski’s insufferable book had me hungering for an antidote to all the negativity. I understand that a more scholarly reader would allow a writer his point of view, and try to see the world through his lenses. Indeed, I do not begrudge Berlinski his right to publish, but I don’t like the view through his lens; it is pseudo-philosophical and manipulative; served with layers of ostentation to give it the appearance of profundity; contrarian merely for the sake of being contrarian.
Happily, the book I read next was not just an antidote, but also an elixir. Marcus du Sautoy’s The Music of the Primes is a splendid yarn about the Riemann Hypothesis. In it, we marvel at the great Gauss as he makes an inspired connection between the distribution of primes and the logarithmic tables. We wince, as Riemann’s housekeeper burns his papers upon his death, and wonder whether an elusive, unpublished proof had gone up in flames. We smile at the rivalry of Gauss and Legendre. We wonder what it must have been like to walk through the halls of Cambridge and encounter Hardy, Littlewood, Russell, Whitehead and Ramanujan all in the space of an afternoon!
But, for all the history of mathematics and its colorful personalities, du Sautoy’s marvellous book holds us because he explains the mathematics lucidly. The analogies are simple and precise – a clock is invoked to explain modular arithmetic, the “music” in the title stands for frequencies associated with complex numbers, the probability of encountering primes is modeled after the tosses of a prime number coin, and so on. As someone who recently began working in applied cryptography, I was particularly thrilled to read du Sautoy’s explanation of the celebrated RSA algorithm, where he likens encryption to shuffling cards in a very large deck. Yes, the book makes it very clear that the big unsolved problem is to prove that all the zeros of the zeta function have the same real coordinate. But, it also leaves you wanting for more information and more insight about Riemann’s landscape. Armed with the mathematical and historical context from this book, I feel really excited about reading a more technical book on number theory.
This is what a popular maths book should be.