This post is similar to my other posts on books I read or am in the process of reading. This time it is second book by John Derbyshire I read on mathematics. The previous book Prime Obsession was an inspiring, interesting and a pleasure to read, since it was all about the Riemann hypothesis. It took me though a little effort to not only read it, but also work through author’s explanations.
So this second book is called Unknown Quantity and it is as captivating as the Prime Obsession was. What is different about the Unknown Quantity that it has more of a historical context on how algebra developed from ancient Mesopotamia to our days.
What I like the most about how John explains mathematical topics in his books is the way he is capable of explaining mathematics the way I never experienced in a school or later in a college. Most of the time math was taught as a given, without trying to convey the essence of the subject, why this formula such and such, how it was conceived and developed. In my opinion, these are very important questions, if not the most important in mathematics. Questioning and curiosity are crucial in mathematical research.
For example, in the Unknown Quantity John shows with enough details how general solutions to second, third and forth degree equations were developed. Why determinant is useful in solving systems of linear equations and why it is important in matrices. These are only some examples, since I haven’t yet finished reading the book.
In short, if you are curious about algebra, and want to know how it evolved historically, and also get some new insight about math you were taught, but never really understood, then the Unknown Quantity is the book for you.