ANALYZE THESE ! ! ! !
A new book profiles two forgotten math geniuses.
BY: MARY CARMICHAEL
CONSIDERING HOW FEW PEOPLE USE HIGHER MATH IN THEIR LIVES, or even remember much, or any, of it from high school, the popularity of books on chaos theory and number theory and higher-dimensional geometry is, well, a paradox. Brian Greene’s best-selling “The Elegant Universe,” on string theory, kicked off the most recent outpouring in 1999, followed by John Derby-shire’s “Prime Obsession,” Steven Strogatz’s “Sync” and Janna Levin’s “How the Universe Got Its Spots,” a gorgeously written collection of un-sent letters to her mom on cosmology and topology.
Last year’s (2004) “The Road to Reality” by Roger Penrose was a best seller abroad despite its 1,136 pages. And, of course, there’s the movie and play “Proof’ . When Gwyneth Paltrow gets involved, you know it’s big.
The latest entry is Mario Livio’s “The Equation That Couldn’t Be Solved,” a wide-ranging exploration of the phenomenon of symmetry, focused on, well, a seemingly unsolvable equation. Specifically, it’s the “quintic” one step up from the dread quadratic equation that gives so many kids fits in algebra. Leavening the equations, Livio offers some nuggets about symmetry that might work at very soignées fetes: most people perceive an underlying symmetry in harmonious com-
positions such as Botticclli’s “The Birth of Venus,” although it can’t be demonstrated mathematically . Some of the DNA on the Y chromosome is written in palindromes. William Morris’s wallpaper and Mozart’s Symphony 40 in G Minor are symmetrical in the same way.
But at the center of “The Equation That Couldn’t Be Solved” is the story of two mathematicians who independently invented much of modern math by coming up with ways to crack the unsolvable equation. They suffered similar—dare we say symmetrical?—tragic fates, dying before their discoveries brought them acclaim. Niles Hcnrik Abel succumbed to tuberculosis in 1829, at the age of 26, a few years after hitting on the basic tenets of group theory. His counterpart, one Evariste Galois, is less well known, but Livio eloquently defends Galois’s contri-butions to group theory while bringing us the story of how the 20-year-old half-mad mathematician died in a duel over a woman . There’s math, yes, but there are also tales of love, violence, history—and the whole, in this case, turns out to be greater than the sum of those parts.
December 5, 2005. (Pg. 49)
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