In a letter to his father in 1839, Dostoyevsky wrote that mathematics was a strange science and that is was silly to concern oneself with it. Math is esoteric and secret, perfect and elegant, and – for many of – obscure and puzzling. But reality is fundamentally mathematical. Even the ancient Greeks were aware of this and knew that formulae and theorems were essential tools for understanding the world. “Chaos”, “algorithm”, “infinity”, “numbers”, and “probability” are evocative words that are used in many fields of knowledge and whisper something into our ears even when we care little for mathematics. The books in the series explain mathematics as a sort of alphabet of the world, employ an approach combining philosophy and humanism, and shed light on the role of mathematics in the history of thought. The series offers readers a fascinating adventure leading to a better understanding of the cultural value of mathematics and its impact on civilization.
One, two, three… As children we have all learned the sequence of numbers by heart, but do we really know what numbers are? Or where they come from? Maybe they are a gift from God, as a great mathematician once said. Or perhaps they are a human invention, inspired by innate qualities we share with other animal species. This book tells the story of an extraordinary idea that took shape thousands of years ago in the ancient civilizations of Babylon and Egypt, in China, in the Aztec and Mayan cultures, and then spread throughout the world. On the coasts of Calabria, followers of Pythagoras discovered “unsayable” (that is, irrational) numbers. In India a symbol was invented to represent nothing. Traders and merchants found meaning in negative numbers. And the fertile minds of mathematicians have even found a use for imaginary and transfinite numbers.
Umberto Bottazzini teaches History of Mathematics at the University of Milan and belongs to the editorial boards of the most important international journals dealing with the history of mathematics.