From 0 to Infinity in 26 Centuries by Chris Waring

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From 0 to Infinity in 26 Centuries by Chris Waring

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Category: Popular Science
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Iain Wear
Reviewed by Iain Wear
Summary: Those who dislike Maths won't believe that anything interesting could come from it. But that's exactly what Chris Waring has produced here. It's not perfect, but it is pretty decent.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 192 Date: September 2012
Publisher: Michael O'Mara Books
ISBN: 978-1843178736

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I quite like Maths and I'm not bad at it at a basic level, which is useful as I have a financial based job. But I recall the point at which Maths went from being easy to incomprehensible for me; sometime over the Summer that feel between GSCE and A-Level standard. Then, as now, I never really wondered where Maths had come from; I just worried why I suddenly couldn't understand it any more.

This book wouldn't have helped with that, but it is an interesting look at Maths through the ages. The title suggests it covers the whole scope of Maths and it certainly achieves that. From prehistoric men counting on their fingers and making marks on animal bones to modern man with his computers and irrational numbers, there is nothing obviously missing from this story. The odd names and theories I remember, or which bought back memories, were all here alongside many more I'd either forgotten or never got around to memorising in the first place.

Given how complex much of Maths can be, I was surprised at how readable the book was. Chris Waring is a teacher of Maths and this does show in his ability to explain many of the concepts very simply. Admittedly, some of the formulas are a little too complex to be easily explained in words, but there are helpful tables and sections for these parts. He breezes through both concepts and history with the same easy style and everything is well explained, up to a point.

It is when the book reaches this point that it loses some of its effectiveness. There are several concepts explained where the book hints at real world applications, but not much detail is given. In the simpler areas of Maths, this is not a problem as many of the developments were due to Maths being used to solve a real world problem. But in the case of some of the more abstract processes, a little more explanation could have been useful. It may be that this is outside the scope of the history of Maths, but there were several points it would have been helpful.

In splitting the ages into areas rather than remaining strictly chronological in approach, at parts the book can be a touch confusing. Some developments followed naturally on from others, but if they were happening on different continents, as in a couple of cases, sometimes the next event in a chain is in a different section from the last. Although Waring always refers back, it did occasionally interrupt the moment to have to go back and remind myself of the previous development. Mostly, however, the through line was enough to keep me going.

In addition, if the reader's understanding is above a basic level, some parts can seem a little too simplistic. Admittedly, much of the history is still fascinating and there was much here that was new to me, particularly about the people involved in creating some of the Maths that stumped me all those years ago. But some of the explanations seemed a little basic and lacking in something for someone with a little more interest and knowledge. If you're the kind of person for whom something like this would pique your interest and you want to know more, you'll have to go elsewhere to do so.

However, as a starter book into the history of Maths, this is a very well done book indeed. It touches enough on each notable person or concept to give an idea of what they or it did and then moves on. This allows for a very compact book that doesn't get bogged down by too much complicated details that would cause a reader with a relatively basic understanding to get confused or disinterested. It won't necessarily make Maths any easier, but it could make it a little more interesting for the reluctant or unenthusiastic student of the subject.

For those who perhaps want to dig a little deeper than the scope of this book allows, 17 Equations That Changed The World by Ian Stewart may be worth a look.

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