NO PAIN, NO GAIN: When The Mathematicians Didn’t Give Up!


Title: Why Beauty is Truth- a History of Symmetry

Author: Ian Stewart

Available: English and Italian

Maths. What a sucks. Maths. I hate it, I don’t understand it, it’s not useful to calculate Pytagora’s theorem at the supermarket. Addiction, subtraction, multiplication and division are enough for our life, aren’t them? No, of course, they aren’t and this book can demonstrate it. Thanks to the biographies of some amazing mathematicians,  it’s clear that historical events and science are strictly tangled.

Initially there was an algebric problem, now there is the “string theory”. What was there in the middle? The discovery of symmetry, that is a specific type of transformation; in others words, a specific method to relocate objects.The first mathematician who created a language  to describe the structure’s symmetry and calculate the consequences was Galois. His discovery is nowadays called “groups theory” and its application deals with physic and computer science.

Why beauty is truth” begins its journey from the ancient past: Babylon and Persia with arabs, greeks and Alexander the Great. We then meet Fibonacci during the Italian Middle Ages and Tartaglia, Cardano and Ferrari during the Renaissance-with all the disagreements between the last two. We’ll be familiar with the brilliant Niels Abel from the north and we’ll suffer cause of his tragic love story (who says that mathematicians are unfeeling?). Gauss, that genius (click here for the Gauss Project) probably will feel you dumb, but his brilliant mind will fascinate you, like that Galois, a foolish rebel. Another great mathematician was Dirac: as good at studies as unfit at the lab. His attitude was called “Dirac effect”. Poor soul!

I’m aware I haven’t said a word about symmetry or mathematical theories explained in the book. Of course I have a good answer, that is Ian Stewart, the author. He is a great mathematician and a famous writer (“Does God play dice?”, “Flatterland” ) and, like your smart best friend explains a difficult exercise to you in a funny way, he opens the door of maths with naturalness. Moreover, Stewart is such an amazing writer: with clear and well-finished style, you don’t feel learning maths at all (and this is my easy way out). Readers will surely appreciate the quotes of Terry Prachett and James Joyce, making the text pleasant.

A weird recurring detail in the book is the computation mistake by the most of mathematicians. There wasn’t any calculators, apps or pc programs at the time and calculations were handmade (sorry, mindmade for those masterminds), but I was puzzled about the situation. How is it possible they couldn’t calculate properly? A friend of mine thinks that  mathematicians live in a huge logic word, with a lot of theory and few computation. She is one of them, obviously.