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December 23rd, 2000

  Christmas Book Selections

[Adam Bellow, the Literary Editor of National Review magazine, asked us all to make brief recommendations based on the books we read during the year 2000.]


Stretching "year" back to fall of 1999, this has been a exceptionally good year for lovers of mathematics. I have read two — count 'em, two — decent novels about mathematicians: Apostolos Doxiadis's Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture was better written and more fun to read, but I think the less well-publicized The Wild Numbers by Philibert Schogt gives a truer picture of what mathematical research looks like from the inside. (Tom Petsinis's 1998 fictional treatment of the brief, tragic life of Évariste Galois, The French Mathematician, which I have not read, has also been issued in paperback this year.)

On the nonfiction front, Keith Devlin's Mathematics: The New Golden Age is an excellent and bang up-to-date survey of the field for the non-specialist, with some good anecdotes not widely known among laymen. If, for example, you are over 50 and your self-esteem needs a boost, look up "Bieberbach Conjecture" in the index. Devlin's book would be a fine gift for a mathematically-inclined adolescent. More towards the technical end of the spectrum, I strongly recommend the AMS translation of Gérald Tenenbaum and Michel Mendès-France's little handbook The Prime Numbers and Their Distribution. Here are some very knotty topics — Cramér's model for the statistical properties of the primes, for example — dealt with briskly and clearly, all in 112 pages. A true gem of scholarly exposition.

Finally, Martin Gardner's Did Adam and Eve Have Navels? is a clear trumpet blast for all sane people to rally in defense of science against pseudoscience, of reason against lunacy, and you should buy it on principle even if you do not read it. As well as having done more for mathematics than any man alive, Gardner is a fine and subtle writer, and a true American gentleman — in short, a national treasure, deserving the support of all honest citizens.