The Equation That Couldn’t Be Solved, How Mathematical Genius Discovered the Language of Symmetry by Mario Livio.
I have not read many books about pure mathematics for the sheer pleasure of it, in fact if I include this one the total is two. However, after reading this book, I think that is going to change. Livio provides a varied and thoroughly satisfying journey through the discovery of mathematical symmetry and group theory, dedicating a great deal of time to ensuring that the reader understands (most of) the technicalities while at the same time painting a vivid image of the lives of the people who are consumed by a passion for “the apparently remote concerns of pure mathematics”.
Yes, I enjoyed this book! Having read Simon Singh’s foray into maths in “Fermats Last Theorem” I was intrigued by the story of Evariste Galois, a french mathematician who struggled to reconcile the demands of the French educational system with his overwhelming mathematical ability throughout his short life. This is a young man who died at the age of twenty having already made the contributions which would revolutionise mathematics and having received no formal recognition for this achievement. When I thumbed through this book in the store I was sold immediately. Livio weaves Galois’ story and achievements are into a tapestry of mathematical discovery and historical developments which kept me interested throughout and gave me an understanding of how Galois’ group theory and symmetry have been used to further our understanding of the very structure of the universe.
I do have a few reservations though. Livio allocates a few pages at the end of the book to a white wash treatment of various pop culture phenomena which might be explainable through mathematical symmetry (not caused by symmetry, but mathematicians can provide an insight) and I did not enjoy this last part of the book. Having been riveted to 232 pages of his book, I had to use some discipline to complete the last two chapters which felt to me like a pritt-stick way of trying to make the book appeal to a wider audience. If every equation in a book halves it’s sales, then perhaps every refence to female orgasm can make up for it. Livio’s strange slap-dash treatment of possible behavioural traits of creative people and the post mortem examinations of Einstein’s and Galois’ brains just didn’t add anything to the book. Perhaps he was pressed for time or space and was trying to convey a grander concept than what came across, but I think the book suffered an unnecesary blow right at the end.
If you are interested in maths, but are not a mathematician, and you will be entertained by a healthy mix of hisorical intrigue and mathematical instruction, by all means buy and read this book. You might want to skip the last two chapters though.
Here are a few beautiful illustrations of mathematical symmetry just to provide a little “ooh”