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Unknown Quantity: A Real and Imaginary…

Unknown Quantity: A Real and Imaginary History of Algebra (2006)

by John Derbyshire

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I'm not really sure who the author was considering as the audience for this book. It's too technical at times for a layperson (and even engineers with PhDs apparently) and not detailed enough for the mathematician. Sometimes it's more like a historical biography of mathematicians and other times more like a math textbook. Additionally, the author broke the 4th wall a lot, and while I don't mind when authors do that, he was kind of annoying. He'd interject to say how he loves drawing figures by hand and everybody should, which I think serves no purpose than to be boastful and preachy. That's just one example I can think of out of many. ( )
1 vote lemontwist | Aug 17, 2012 |
Unknown Quantity is the history of algebra from the very beginnings with commerce-related word problems to the present day world of abstract algebras, plural. The author provides some of the necessary background to topic in short chapters on the math itself, as opposed to the history. A fine bibliography is included.

John Derbyshire writes in a clear and precise style. While many of the topics are very advanced (4th year math or grad level), he attempts to present the material so most readers can at least have a vague idea of what is happening. His historical narrative is wonderful!

I really have no bad things to say about this book, except it gave me a headache. The math is in the deep end of the pool in the later chapters. While one could skip the sections, the historical narrative would not mean as much without the rudimentary understanding of the math involved.

Overall, I think this book is great. I hesitate to say I love it, because, honestly, it reminded me of how much math I have forgotten and how much I want to learn. ( )
  LMHTWB | May 25, 2012 |
Unknown Quantity is an interesting volume. Math, and algebra specifically would normally seem to be a pretty dry subject (i ceratinly thought so all through college), however, John Derbyshire has created an incredibly readable history. Reading this will bring back memories of some of the materials you studied in your school days - but presented much more attractively. Part history, part primer (of algebraic concepts), part biography, Derbyshire gives algebra personality - a shifting personality as he examines the key men and woman responsible for the continuous evolution (who would have thought algebra has changed so dramatically in the last 100 years?) of algebra. Althoiugh some of the equations can make your head hurt - this volume is worth reading (reminds me of the old saying "Math is fun!") ( )
  jsoos | Sep 20, 2010 |
Unknown Quantity: A real and imaginary history of Algebra
John Derbyshire
May 28, 2010

The math professor is showing excessively in this survey of the history of algebra. Dr. Derbyshire finds pleasure in math and is too eager to ask the reader to share the pleasure by demonstrating this theorem without further explanation, or checking that conclusion on minimal evidence. It is therefore often hard to follow the very abstruse math. I did enjoy learning about the relationships between solutions to ordinary polynomial equations, group theory, rings and manifolds, and topology, topics I did not think were related. Read quickly, not bad, but sometimes bogging down in unexplained math digressions.
I learned, and enjoyed the proof, that the square root of i is (1/sqrt2+1/sqrt2*i) ( )
  neurodrew | Jun 2, 2010 |
  DianaMcKay | Mar 3, 2010 |
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This book is a history of algebra, written for the curious nonmathematician. (Introduction)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0452288533, Paperback)

For curious nonmathematicians and armchair algebra buffs, John Derbyshire discovers the story behind the formulae, roots, and radicals. As he did so masterfully in Prime Obsession, Derbyshire brings the evolution of mathematical thinking to dramatic life by focusing on the key historical players. Unknown Quantity begins in the time of Abraham and Isaac and moves from Abel?s proof to the higher levels of abstraction developed by Galois through modern-day advances. Derbyshire explains how a simple turn of thought from ?this plus this equals this? to ?this plus what equals this?? gave birth to a whole new way of perceiving the world. With a historian?s narrative authority and a beloved teacher?s clarity and passion, Derbyshire leads readers on an intellectually satisfying and pleasantly challenging journey through the development of abstract mathematical thought.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:14 -0400)

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The author gives expert form to the beauty and mystery of the most abstract of mathematical disciplines - algebra. He brings to life the cast of characters each of whom, through the centuries and across the world, played a role in its history. Originally published: Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry, 2006.… (more)

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