Taming the Infinite

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 January, 2010, 12:00am

Taming the Infinite
by Ian Stewart
Quercus, HK$121

It's hard to know for whom this book was written. Math experts would probably find its contents too simple, while others might baulk at revisiting the stuff of childhood nightmares. Which leaves those in the middle who may not have pursued a career in numbers but are fascinated by mathematical ideas. Ian Stewart distils into 373 pages mathematical history from the first numbers to chaos theory. The choice of contents, he explains, was guided by knowledge most readers are likely to possess and ideas that can be elucidated succinctly. Why we should care is addressed in boxes with such titles as What Algebra Does For Us, which tells how some archaeologists used algebra to work out the depth of a medieval well. Similarly, Stewart explains how fundamental trigonometry is to surveying anything from building sites to continents and that computers function on complex algorithms. Book dippers won't be disappointed by reading only the boxes, which include portraits of mathematicians such as Fibonacci. Taming the Infinite won't make a mathematician of you, but it is a good reminder of why math is often a compulsory school subject.