Significant Figures

The Lives and Work of Great Mathematicians


By Ian Stewart

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A celebrated mathematician traces the history of math through the lives and work of twenty-five pioneering mathematicians

In Significant Figures, acclaimed mathematician Ian Stewart explores the work of 25 of history’s most important mathematicians, showing how they developed on each other’s work and built the mathematics we use today.

Through these short biographies, we get acquainted with the history of mathematics from Archimedes to William Thurston, and learn about those too often left out of the cannon, such as Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, the creator of algebra; Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer; and Emmy Noether, whose research on symmetry paved the way for modern physics.

Tracing the evolution of mathematics over the course of two millennia, Significant Figures will educate and delight aspiring mathematicians and experts alike.



ALL BRANCHES OF SCIENCE can trace their origins far back into the mists of history, but in most subjects the history is qualified by 'we now know this was wrong' or 'this was along the right lines, but today's view is different'. For example, the Greek philosopher Aristotle thought that a trotting horse can never be entirely off the ground, which Eadweard Muybridge disproved in 1878 using a line of cameras linked to tripwires. Aristotle's theories of motion were completely overturned by Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton, and his theories of the mind bear no useful relation to modern neuroscience and psychology.

Mathematics is different. It endures. When the ancient Babylonians worked out how to solve quadratic equations – probably around 2000 BC, although the earliest tangible evidence dates from 1500 BC – their result never became obsolete. It was correct, and they knew why. It's still correct today. We express the result symbolically, but the reasoning is identical. There's an unbroken line of mathematical thought that goes all the way back from tomorrow to Babylon. When Archimedes worked out the volume of a sphere, he didn't use algebraic symbols, and he didn't think of a specific number π as we now do. He expressed the result geometrically, in terms of proportions, as was Greek practice then. Nevertheless, his answer is instantly recognisable as being equivalent to today's πr3.

To be sure, a few ancient discoveries outside mathematics have been similarly long-lived. Archimedes's Principle that an object displaces its own weight of liquid is one, and his law of the lever is another. Some parts of Greek physics and engineering live on too. But in those subjects, longevity is the exception, whereas in mathematics it's closer to the rule. Euclid's Elements, laying out a logical basis for geometry, still repays close examination. Its theorems remain true, and many remain useful. In mathematics, we move on, but we don't discard our history.

Before you all start to think that mathematics is burying its head in the past, I need to point out two things. One is that the perceived importance of a method or a theorem can change. Entire areas of mathematics have gone out of fashion, or become obsolete as the frontiers shifted or new techniques took over. But they're still true, and from time to time an obsolete area has undergone a revival, usually because of a newly discovered connection with another area, a new application, or a breakthrough in methodology. The second is that as mathematicians have developed their subject, they've not only moved on; they've also devised a gigantic amount of new, important beautiful, and useful mathematics.

That said, the basic point remains unchallenged: once a mathematical theorem has been correctly proved, it becomes something that we can build on – forever. Even though our concept of proof has tightened up considerably since Euclid's day, to get rid of unstated assumptions, we can fill in what we now see as gaps, and the results still stand.

Significant Figures investigates the almost mystical process that brings new mathematics into being. Mathematics doesn't arise in a vacuum: it's created by people. Among them are some with astonishing originality and clarity of mind, the people we associate with great breakthroughs – the pioneers, the trailblazers, the significant figures. Historians rightly explain that the work of the greats depended on a vast supporting cast, contributing tiny bits and pieces to the overall puzzle. Important or fruitful questions can be stated by relative unknowns; major ideas can be dimly perceived by people who lack the technical ability to turn them into powerful new methods and viewpoints. Newton remarked that he 'stood on the shoulders of giants'. He was to some extent being sarcastic; several of those giants (notably Robert Hooke) were complaining that Newton was not so much standing on their shoulders as treading on their toes, by not giving them fair credit, or by taking the credit in public despite citing their contributions in his writings. However, Newton spoke truly: his great syntheses of motion, gravity, and light depended on a huge number of insights from his intellectual predecessors. Nor were they exclusively giants. Ordinary people played a significant part too.

Nevertheless, the giants stand out, leading the way while the rest of us follow. Through the lives and works of a selection of significant figures, we can gain insight into how new mathematics is created, who created it, and how they lived. I think of them not just as pioneers who showed the rest of us the way, but as trailblazers who hacked traversable paths through the tangled undergrowth of the sprawling jungle of mathematical thought. They spent much of their time struggling through thorn bushes and swamps, but from time to time they came across a Lost City of the Elephants or an El Dorado, uncovering precious jewels hidden among the undergrowth. They penetrated regions of thought previously unknown to humankind.

Indeed, they created those regions. The mathematical jungle isn't like the Amazon Rainforest or the African Congo. The mathematical trailblazer isn't a David Livingstone, hacking a route along the Zambezi or hunting for the source of the Nile. Livingstone was 'discovering' things that were already there. Indeed, the local inhabitants knew they were there. But in those days, Europeans interpreted 'discovery' as 'Europeans bringing things to the attention of other Europeans.' Mathematical trailblazers don't merely explore a pre-existing jungle. There's a sense in which they create the jungle as they proceed; as if new plants are springing to life in their footsteps, rapidly becoming saplings, then mighty trees. However, it feels as if there's a pre-existing jungle, because you don't get to choose which plants spring to life. You choose where to tread, but you can't decide to 'discover' a clump of mahogany trees if what actually turns up there is a mangrove swamp.

This, I think, is the source of the still popular Platonist view of mathematical ideas: that mathematical truths 'really' exist, but they do so in an ideal form in some sort of parallel reality, which has always existed and always will. In this view, when we prove a new theorem we just find out what has been there all along. I don't think that Platonism makes literal sense, but it accurately describes the process of mathematical research. You don't get to choose: all you can do is shake the bushes and see if anything drops out. In What is Mathematics, Really? Reuben Hersh offers a more realistic view of mathematics: it's a shared human mental construct. In this respect it's much like money. Money isn't 'really' lumps of metal or pieces of paper or numbers in a computer; it's a shared set of conventions about how we exchange lumps of metal, pieces of paper, and numbers in a computer, for each other or for goods.

Hersh outraged some mathematicians, who zoomed in on 'human construct' and complained that mathematics is by no means arbitrary. Social relativism doesn't hack it. This is true, but Hersh explained perfectly clearly that mathematics isn't any human construct. We choose to tackle Fermat's Last Theorem, but we don't get to choose whether it's true or false. The human construct that is mathematics is subject to a stringent system of logical constraints, and something gets added to the construct only if it respects those constraints. Potentially, the constraints allow us to distinguish truth from falsity, but we don't find out which of those applies by declaiming loudly that only one of them is possible. The big question is: which one? I've lost count of the number of times someone has attacked some controversial piece of mathematics that they dislike by pointing out that mathematics is a tautology: everything new is a logical consequence of things we already know. Yes, it is. The new is implicit in the old. But the hard work comes when you want to make it explicit. Ask Andrew Wiles; it's no use telling him that the status of Fermat's Last Theorem was always predetermined by the logical structure of mathematics. He spent seven years finding out what its predetermined status is. Until you do that, being predetermined is as useful as asking someone the way to the British Library and being told that it's in Britain.

Significant Figures isn't an organised history of the whole of mathematics, but I've tried to present the mathematical topics that arise in a coherent manner, so that the concepts build up systematically as the book proceeds. On the whole, this requires presenting everything in roughly chronological order. Chronological order by topic would be unreadable, because we'd be perpetually hopping from one mathematician to another, so I've ordered the chapters by birth date and provided occasional cross-references.1

My significant figures are 25 in number, ancient and modern, male and female, eastern and western. Their personal histories begin in ancient Greece, with the great geometer and engineer Archimedes, whose achievements ranged from approximating π and calculating the area and volume of a sphere, to the Archimedean screw for raising water and a crane-like machine for destroying enemy ships. Next come three representatives of the far east, where the main mathematical action of the Middle Ages took place: the Chinese scholar Liu Hui, the Persian mathematician Muhammad ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi, whose works gave us the words 'algorithm' and 'algebra', and the Indian Madhava of Sangamagrama, who pioneered infinite series for trigonometric functions, rediscovered in the west by Newton a millennium later.

The main action in mathematics returned to Europe during the Italian Renaissance, where we encounter Girolamo Cardano, one of the biggest rogues ever to grace the mathematical pantheon. A gambler and brawler, Cardano also wrote one of the most important algebra texts ever printed, practised medicine, and led a life straight out of the tabloid press. He cast horoscopes, too. In contrast, Pierre de Fermat, famous for his Last Theorem, was a lawyer with a passion for mathematics that often led him to neglect his legal work. He turned number theory into a recognised branch of mathematics, but also contributed to optics and developed some precursors to calculus. That subject was brought to fruition by Newton, whose masterwork is his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), usually abbreviated to Principia. In it, he stated his laws of motion and gravity, and applied them to the motion of the solar system. Newton marks a tipping point in mathematical physics, turning it into an organised mathematical study of what he called the 'System of the World'.

For a century after Newton, the focus of mathematics shifted to continental Europe and Russia. Leonhard Euler, the most prolific mathematician in history, turned out important papers at a journalistic rate, while systematising many areas of mathematics in a series of elegant, clearly written textbooks. No field of mathematics evaded his scrutiny. Euler even anticipated some of the ideas of Joseph Fourier, whose investigation of the transmission of heat led to one of the most important techniques in the modern engineer's handbook: Fourier analysis, which represents a periodic waveform in terms of the basic trigonometric functions 'sine' and 'cosine'. Fourier was also the first to understand that the atmosphere plays an important role in the Earth's heat balance.

Mathematics enters the modern era with the peerless researches of Carl Friedrich Gauss, a strong contender for the greatest mathematician of all time. Gauss began in number theory, sealed his reputation in celestial mechanics by predicting the reappearance of the newly discovered asteroid Ceres, and made major advances regarding complex numbers, least-squares data fitting, and non-Euclidean geometry, though he published nothing on the latter because he feared it was too far ahead of its time and would attract ridicule. Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky was less diffident, and published extensively on an alternative geometry to that of Euclid, now called hyperbolic geometry. He and Janós Bolyai are now recognised as the rightful founders of non-Euclidean geometry, which can be interpreted as the natural geometry of a surface with constant curvature. Gauss was basically right to believe that the idea was ahead of its time, however, and neither Lobachevsky nor Bolyai was appreciated during his lifetime. We round off this era with the tragic story of the revolutionary Évariste Galois, killed at the age of twenty in a duel over a young woman. He made major advances in algebra, leading to today's characterisation of the vital concept of symmetry in terms of transformation groups.

A new theme now enters the story, a trail blazed by the first female mathematician we encounter. Namely, the mathematics of computation. Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, acted as assistant to Charles Babbage, a single-minded individual who understood the potential power of calculating machines. He envisaged the Analytical Engine, a programmable computer made of ratchets and cogwheels, now the central gimmick of steampunk science fiction. Ada is widely credited with being the first computer programmer, although that claim is controversial. The computer theme continues with George Boole, whose Laws of Thought laid down a fundamental mathematical formalism for the digital logic of today's computers.

As mathematics becomes more diverse, so does our tale, hacking its way into new regions of the ever-growing jungle. Bernhard Riemann was brilliant at uncovering simple, general ideas behind apparently complex concepts. His contributions include the foundations of geometry, especially the curved 'manifolds' upon which Albert Einstein's revolutionary theory of gravitation, General Relativity, depends. But he also made huge steps in the theory of prime numbers by relating number theory to complex analysis through his 'zeta function'. The Riemann Hypothesis, about the zeros of this function, is one of the greatest and most important unsolved problems in the whole of mathematics, with a million-dollar prize for its solution.

Next comes Georg Cantor, who changed the way mathematicians think about the foundations of their subject by introducing set theory, and defined infinite analogues of the counting numbers 1, 2, 3,…, leading to the discovery that some infinities are bigger than others – in a rigorous, meaningful, and useful sense. Like many innovators, Cantor was misunderstood and ridiculed during his lifetime.

Our second woman mathematician now appears on the scene, the prodigiously talented Sofia Kovalevskaia. Her life was rather complicated, tied up with Russian revolutionary politics and the obstacles that male-dominated society placed in the path of brilliant female intellectuals. It's amazing that she accomplished anything in mathematics at all. In fact, she made remarkable discoveries in the solution of partial differential equations, the motion of a rigid body, the structure of the rings of Saturn, and the refraction of light by a crystal.

The story now gathers pace. Around the turn of the nineteenth century, one of the world's leading mathematicians was the Frenchman Henri Poincaré. An apparent eccentric, he was actually extremely shrewd. He recognised the importance of the nascent area of topology – 'rubber-sheet geometry' in which shapes can be distorted continuously – and extended it from two dimensions to three and beyond. He applied it to differential equations, studying the three-body problem for Newtonian gravitation. This led him to discover the possibility of deterministic chaos, apparently random behaviour in a non-random system. He also came close to discovering Special Relativity before Einstein did.

As a German counterpart to Poincaré we have David Hilbert, whose career divides into five distinct periods. First, he took up a line of thought that originated with Boole, about 'invariants' – algebraic expressions that remain the same despite changes in coordinates. He then developed a systematic treatment of core areas of number theory. After that, he revisited Euclid's axioms for geometry, found them wanting, and added extra ones to plug the logical gaps. Next, he moved into mathematical logic and foundations, initiating a programme to prove that mathematics can be placed on an axiomatic basis, and that this is both consistent (no logical deduction can lead to a contradiction) and complete (every statement can either be proved or disproved). Finally, he turned to mathematical physics, coming close to beating Einstein to General Relativity, and introducing the notion of a Hilbert space, central to quantum mechanics.

Emmy Noether is our third and final female mathematician, who lived at a time when the participation of women in academic matters was still frowned upon by most of the incumbent males. She began, like Hilbert, in invariant theory, and later worked with him as a colleague. Hilbert made strenuous attempts to smash the glass ceiling and secure her a permanent academic position, with partial success. Noether blazed the trail of abstract algebra, pioneering today's axiomatic structures such as groups, rings, and fields. She also proved a vital theorem relating the symmetries of laws of physics to conserved quantities, such as energy.

By now the story has moved into the twentieth century. To show that great mathematical ability is not confined to the educated classes of the western world, we follow the life and career of the self-taught Indian genius Srinivasa Ramanujan, who grew up in poverty. His uncanny ability to intuit strange but true formulas was rivalled, if at all, only by giants such as Euler and Carl Jacobi. Ramanujan's concept of proof was hazy, but he could find formulas that no one else would ever have dreamed of. His papers and notebooks are still being mined today for fresh ways of thinking.

Two mathematicians with a philosophical bent return us to the foundations of the subject and its relation to computation. One is Kurt Gödel, whose proof that any axiom system for arithmetic must be incomplete and undecidable demolished Hilbert's programme to prove the opposite. The other is Alan Turing, whose investigations into the abilities of a programmable computer led to a simpler and more natural proof of these results. He is, of course, famous for his codebreaking work at Bletchley Park during World War II. He also proposed the Turing test for artificial intelligence, and after the war he worked on patterns in animal markings. He was gay, and died in tragic and mysterious circumstances.

I decided not to include any living mathematicians, but to end with two recently deceased modern mathematicians: one pure and the other applied (but also unorthodox). The latter is Benoit Mandelbrot, widely known for his work on fractals, geometric shapes that have detailed structure on all scales of magnification. Fractals often model nature far better than traditional smooth surfaces such as spheres and cylinders. Although several other mathematicians worked on structures that we now see as fractal, Mandelbrot made a great leap forward by recognising their potential as models of the natural world. He wasn't a theorem-proof type of mathematician; instead, he had an intuitive visual grasp of geometry, which led him to see relationships and state conjectures. He was also a bit of a showman, and an energetic promoter of his ideas. That didn't endear him to some in the mathematical community, but you can't please everyone.

Finally, I've chosen a (pure) mathematician's mathematician, William Thurston. Thurston, too, had a deep intuitive grasp of geometry, in a broader and deeper sense than Mandelbrot. He could do theorem-proof mathematics with the best of them, though as his career advanced he tended to focus on the theorems and sketch the proofs. In particular he worked in topology, where he noticed an unexpected connection with non-Euclidean geometry. Eventually, this circle of ideas motivated Grigori Perelman to prove an elusive conjecture in topology, due to Poincaré. His methods also proved a more general conjecture of Thurston that provides unexpected insights into all three-dimensional manifolds.

In the final chapter, I'll pick up some of the threads that weave their way through the 25 stories of these astonishing individuals, and explore what they teach us about pioneering mathematicians – who they are, how they work, where they get their crazy ideas, what drives them to be mathematicians in the first place.

For now, however, I'd just like to add two warnings. The first is that I've necessarily been selective. There isn't enough space to provide comprehensive biographies, to survey everything that my trailblazers worked on, or to enter into fine details of how their ideas evolved and how they interacted with their colleagues. Instead, I've tried to offer a representative selection of their most important – or interesting – discoveries and concepts, with enough historical detail to paint a picture of them as people and locate them in their society. For some mathematicians of antiquity, even that has to be very sketchy, because few records about their lives (and often no original documents about their works) have survived.

The second is that the 25 mathematicians I've chosen are by no means the only significant figures in the development of mathematics. I made my choices for many reasons – the importance of the mathematics, the intrinsic interest of the area, the appeal of the human story, the historical period, diversity, and that elusive quality, 'balance'. If your favourite mathematician is omitted, the most likely reason is limited space, coupled with a wish to choose representatives that are widely distributed in the three-dimensional manifold whose coordinates are geography, historical period, and gender. I believe that everyone in the book fully deserves inclusion, although one or two may be controversial. I have no doubt at all that many others could have been selected with comparable justification.


Do Not Disturb My Circles


Archimedes of Syracuse

Born: Syracuse, Sicily, c. 287 BC

Died: Syracuse, c. 212 BC

THE YEAR: 1973. The place: Skaramagas naval base, near Athens. All eyes are focused on a plywood mock-up of a Roman ship. Also focused on the ship: the rays of the Sun, reflected from seventy copper-coated mirrors fifty metres away, each a metre wide and half as high again.

Within a few seconds, the ship catches fire.

Ioannis Sakkas, a modern Greek scientist, is recreating a possibly mythical piece of ancient Greek science. In the second century AD the Roman author Lucian wrote that at the Siege of Syracuse, around 214–212 BC, the engineer and mathematician Archimedes invented a device to destroy enemy ships by fire. Whether this device existed, and if so, how it worked, is highly obscure. Lucian's story could just be a reference to the common use of fire arrows or burning rags shot from a catapult, but it's hard to see why this would have been presented as a new invention. In the sixth century, Anthemius of Tralles suggested, in his Burning Glasses, that Archimedes had used a huge lens. But in the most prevalent legend, Archimedes used a giant mirror, or possibly an array of mirrors arranged in an arc to form a rough parabolic reflector.

The parabola is a U-shaped curve, well known to Greek geometers. Archimedes certainly knew about its focal property: all lines parallel to the axis, when reflected in the parabola, pass through the same point, called the focus. Whether anyone realised that a parabolic mirror would focus light (and heat) from the Sun in the same way is less certain, because Greek understanding of light was rudimentary. But, as Sakkas's experiment shows, Archimedes wouldn't actually have needed a parabolic arrangement. A lot of soldiers, each armed with a reflecting shield, independently aiming it to direct the Sun's rays towards the same part of the ship, would have been just as effective.

The practicality of what is often called 'Archimedes's heat ray' has been hotly debated. The philosopher René Descartes, a pioneer in optics, didn't believe it could have worked. Sakkas's experiment suggests it might have done, but his fake plywood ship was flimsy, and coated in a tar-based paint, so it would burn easily. On the other hand, in Archimedes's time it was common to coat ships with tar to protect their hulls. In 2005 a bunch of MIT students repeated Sakkas's experiment, eventually setting a wooden mock-up of a ship on fire – but only after focusing the Sun's rays on it for ten minutes while it remained totally stationary. They tried it again for the TV show Mythbusters using a fishing boat in San Francisco, and managed to char the wood and produce a few flames, but it didn't ignite. Mythbusters concluded that the myth was bust.

Archimedes was a polymath: astronomer, engineer, inventor, mathematician, physicist. He was probably the greatest scientist (to use the modern term) of his age. As well as important mathematical discoveries, he produced inventions that are breathtaking in their scope – the Archimedean screw for raising water, block-and-tackle pulleys to lift heavy weights – and he discovered Archimedes's principle on floating bodies and the law (though not the apparatus, which appeared much earlier) of the lever. He's also credited with a second war-machine, the claw. Allegedly he used this crane-like device at the Battle of Syracuse to lift enemy ships from the water and sink them. The 2005 television documentary Superweapons of the Ancient World built its own version of the device, and it worked. Ancient texts contain many other tantalising references to theorems and inventions attributed to Archimedes. Among them is a mechanical planetary calculator, much like the famed Antikythera mechanism of around 100 BC, discovered in a shipwreck in 1900–1901 and only recently understood.

We know very little about Archimedes. He was born in Syracuse (Siracusa), a historic Sicilian city located towards the southern end of the island's east coast. It was founded in either 734 or 733 BC by Greek colonists, supposedly under the semi-mythical Archias when he exiled himself from Corinth. According to Plutarch, Archias had become infatuated with Actaeon, a handsome boy. When his advances were rejected he tried to kidnap the lad, and in the struggle, Actaeon was torn to pieces. His father Melissus's pleas for justice went unanswered, so he climbed to the top of a temple of Poseidon, called upon the god to avenge his son, and flung himself onto the rocks below. A severe drought and famine followed these dramatic events, and the local oracle declared that only vengeance would propitiate Poseidon. Archias got the message, exiled himself voluntarily to avoid being sacrificed, headed for Sicily, and founded Syracuse. Later his past caught up with him anyway when Telephus, who as a boy had also been an object of Archias's desires, killed him.


  • "Mathematics is the universal language, but some of its most prominent practitioners are forgotten figures--even though they've shaped our modern world. Significant Figures walks through the lives and work of 25 great mathematicians, from Archimedes to William Thurston. It's a great primer for those interested in where our universal language of numbers comes from."—Popular Mechanics
  • "Stewart folds into his biographies a broad swath of mathematics, including Euclidian and non-Euclidean geometries, set theory, calculus, algebra, and topology; readers with an affinity for math will find the material challenging and fun."
    Publishers Weekly
  • "In Significant Figures, Ian Stewart brings mathematics to life with intriguing accounts of twenty-five extraordinary contributors to the field. His biographical sketches blend equal parts passion--love affairs and rivalries--with insights--groundbreaking discoveries--to offer vivid, complete portraits of his subjects. By showing how even mathematical geniuses face all-too-human challenges, Stewart offers a riveting chronicle of one of humankind's loftiest endeavors."
    Paul Halpern, author The Quantum Labyrinth: How Richard Feynman and John Wheeler Revolutionized Time and Reality
  • "The biographies that appear here are interesting and accessible; anybody with an interest in mathematics or history would likely enjoy perusing them."—MAA Reviews
  • "One of the stated goals of this book is to dispel the idea that mathematicians are boring, and this delightful title goes a long way toward that aim."—Library Journal
  • "Stewart has written a worthy successor to Bell's far-from-outdated classic [Men of Mathematics]-- one that may in time incline an even greater number of young readers to pursue careers in mathematics. Meanwhile, working professionals curious about the lesser-known masters profiled in the book, yet lacking the time or inclination to digest an entire biography, will find Significant Figures both informative and entertaining."—SIAM News
  • "Part advanced math lesson and part history book, Stewart's celebration of seminal mathematicians and their findings will appeal to anyone who wants to better understand the building blocks of many of today's sciences."—Booklist
  • "Stewart is the least modish of writers, delivering new scholarship on ancient Chinese and Indian mathematics to supplement a well-rehearsed body of knowledge about the western tradition. A prolific writer himself, Stewart is good at identifying the audiences for mathematics at different periods."—Spectator
  • "A text for teachers, precocious students, and intellectually curious readers unafraid to tread unfamiliar territory and learn what mad pursuits inspire mathematicians."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "The search for mathematical truth, no matter how abstract, is ultimately carried out by flesh-and-blood people. In this readable book, Ian Stewart makes math accessible by humanizing its greatest practitioners, simultaneously illuminating who they were and the discoveries they made. You cannot read it without being struck by admiration for the driven souls who created mathematics over the centuries."—Sean Carroll, author of The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the UniverseItself
  • "This beautifully written assemblage of the lives and work of the world's greatest mathematicians is both humbling and inspiring. Stewart shows with his typical clarity how the power of pure thought has shaped our world for over two millennia."—J.S. Al-Khalili, OBE, Professor of Physics,University of Surrey
  • "Professor Ian Stewart shows us emphatically that great mathematicians have often also been public servants, political activists and expositors, not just lone geniuses or one-track minds. Mathematics for all its abstraction is a communal and human activity, and this is vividly captured in this fascinating whistlestop tour of the human lives behind the greatest mathematics in history."—Dr. Eugenia Cheng, Scientist In Residence,School of the Art Institute of Chicago, author of How to Bake Pi and BeyondInfinity
  • "In his latest book, master mathematics expositor Ian Stewart delivers on his catchy title with succinct summaries of twenty-five of the most influential mathematicians of all time.... Stewart provides a concise overview of what has been hot in math at different times in the discipline's history. A great way for an outsider to get a sense of the huge historical arc of mathematical discoveries that has led to the mathematics--and the world--of today. I recommend it."—Keith Devlin, Stanford University, author of The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci's ArithmeticRevolution and Finding Fibonacci: TheQuest to Rediscover the Forgotten Mathematical Genius Who Changed the World

On Sale
Sep 12, 2017
Page Count
320 pages
Basic Books

Ian Stewart

About the Author

Ian Stewart is Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at the University of Warwick. He is the accessible and successful (and prolific) author of numerous Basic books on mathematics including, most recently, Calculating the Cosmos. Stewart is also a regular research visitor at the University of Houston, the Institute of Mathematics and Its Applications in Minneapolis, and the Santa Fe Institute. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2001. His writing has appeared in New Scientist, Discover, Scientific American, and many newspapers in the U.K. and U.S. He lives in Coventry, England.

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