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In Pursuit of the Unknown: 17 Equations That Changed the World

3.93 of 5 stars 3.93  ·  rating details  ·  770 ratings  ·  88 reviews
In In Pursuit of the Unknown, celebrated mathematician Ian Stewart uses a handful of mathematical equations to explore the vitally important connections between math and human progress. We often overlook the historical link between mathematics and technological advances, says Stewart—but this connection is integral to any complete understanding of human history.Equations a ...more
Hardcover, 352 pages
Published March 13th 2012 by Basic Books (first published 1996)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 2,848)
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Brian Clegg
There's been a trend for a couple of years in popular science to produce 'n greatest ideas' type books, the written equivalent of those interminable '50 best musicals' or '100 favourite comedy moments' or whatever shows that certain TV companies churn out. Now it has come to popular maths in the form of Ian Stewart's 17 Equations that Changed the World.

Stewart is a prolific writer - according to the accompanying bumf he has authored more than 80 books, which is quite an oeuvre. That can't be bad
Jose Gaona

(...) 17 ecuaciones que cambiaron el mundo no es un libro fácil en la medida en que su público potencial seremos lectores sin formación matemática profunda. Algunas partes requieren una lectura atenta y disciplinada y otras requerirán echar una mirada a capítulos precedentes para refrescar las nociones, ya que muchas ecuaciones se construyen a partir de ideas y conceptos ya presentados a los que el autor no vuelve. No es un manual o un libro de texto, ni m
Not every chapter in the British mathematician's latest book is actually about an equation, but most of them are. He covers Pythagora's theorem (the one about the sides of a triangle), logarithms, calculus, Newton's law of gravity, complex numbers, the relationship discovered by the Swiss mathematician Euler regarding the number of sides and vertices of polyhedra, the normal distribution (the bell curve), the equation used to describe waves, fluid mootion (Navier-Stokes equation) and electromagn ...more
Bryan Higgs
I am a fan of Ian Stewart. I think he is one of the best writers about Mathematics and Science in general -- certainly one of the most approachable to a layman, albeit a layman with a scientific/mathematical bent. I own and have read a number of his books, and have enjoyed them all. You can find a number of my reviews of his books on Goodreads.

As the subtitle says, this book is about 17 equations that changed the world. As one who has a Ph.D. in Physics, I was familiar with all but one of these
Philippe Guglielmetti
Ce livre de Ian Stewart présente 17 équations célèbres, leur histoire, leur importance, leurs applications. Bien fait, intéressant, ce livre ne soignera cependant pas les allergiques aux maths.
Gafar Alli
"Neglect of mathematics works injury to all knowledge, since he who is ignorant of it cannot know the other sciences or the things of the world" - Roger Bacon

If there ever was a book I wished I read earlier - this has to be it. If Ian Stewart had published this book pre-2003, maybe I wouldn't have skipped so many lectures after booze-induced somnolence.

Ian does justice covering 17 of the greatest mathematical equations responsible for mankind's progress. He starts off with Pythagoras..a^2 + b^2
While I enjoyed the description of many of the key equations covered, I did not find them well laid out. Either too great an understanding was assumed or too little. My major concern with the book arose in the final equation chapter where the author covers the black scholes equation and blames the financial crisis on the use of derivatives in a blanket manner. The arguments suggest a lack of understanding of fundamental economic theory particularly with regard to the need for derivatives in prov ...more
I bought this because I was reading Deleuze and Guattari's Thousand Plateaus and was reminded that I am unfluent in math. So at my willowy poetfriend's bookstore, I picked up this book, hoping to read about one equation a day. Which is what I did. And it's a damn fine introduction to these equations, but I've forgotten nearly everything. I can't sketch out the second law of thermodynamics, nor any of the other equations from memory, and couldn't give you but a rough outline of all of the engro ...more
Alejandro Ramirez
I'm often surprised when smart people don't have a basic understanding of what was required to create the civilization around us: planes, buildings, subway, supermarkets, computers, phones. Knowledge of the scientific progress is patchy, but math seems to be way off the radar for most people, so I think books like these are a necessity.

Somewhere in chapter 12 it quotes novelist C.P. Snow, who warns that society is starting to slit into 2 groups, one of them being scientifically illiterate, says
Tommy Carlson
This book is one of those attempts to liven up a dull list of sciencesque things by providing some of the story surrounding the things. (The Disappearing Spoon being the canonical example of this genre.) It's not bad, but nor is it all that good.

Part of the problem is the limited audience. Unless you already know some of this stuff already, the book will be rough going. It's not pitched at someone new to science and math. Luckily, I'm new to neither science nor math, so it wasn't a problem for m
Stewart doesn't shy away from the mathematics of the equations in this book, but neither does he try to give you the background you would need to understand them: this is reasonable since there's pretty big mathematics behind some of them (Maxwell's equations, for example, or Fourier transforms and the wave equation). But he does explain the significance of each one, and then talks about the impact of that equation on subsequent physics, math, and society.
John Park
One of the seventeen, as Stewart acknowledges, is not an equation but an inequality—that of the second law of thermodynamics; and some of the equations have multiple components (Maxwell's equations of electromagnetism and arguably the Navier-Stokes equation for a vector field describing fluid flow). These minor cavils aside, Stewart provides a fascinating survey from Pythagoras to modern economics, with each equation serving as a jumping-off point for a wide-ranging essay.

Newton's law of gravita
Tackles the impossible and predictable fails. Math is hard. There is no avoiding it. It can be fun, but advanced math takes work. When writing a book like this, one inevitably oversimplifies or mystifies - he does both. Some part seem targeted to jr high, others to sophomore college math class. Nevertheless, the book is an interesting read with a few nuggets. Be forewarned, he is a dark energy "denier." "Denier" of course being a predicable trope he pulls out in the climate chapter, so I thought ...more
I wish when I was learning most of these equations, they were explained to me in the way Ian Stewart does in this book. In a clear and precise way, Ian takes us through the most important mathematical and scientific breakthrough in the history of mankind. The way the book is arranged chronologically, starting in Pythagoras theorem and ending with Midas formula, not only makes sense but also makes it a perfect story of our scientific advancements. Although I would have to say at some points, the ...more
Austin Wright-pettibone
Stewart is a captivating author, who's passion for teaching shines through as much as his knowledge of the subject. The explanations start to get a bit more descriptive around the Navier-Stokes equation, which was a shame, but definitely understandable, seeing as he's writing for a general audience. I greatly enjoyed his early chapters, especially the one tracing the development of logarithms. I felt he was able to describe the subject in a away that even for someone using mathematics you learn ...more
Omar Shehab
One of the best popsci books I have ever read.
Michael Cayley
This is a book which takes some major mathematical equations and explains how they have affected the development of our world, from Pythagoras's theorem to the Black-Scholes equation for pricing financial instruments. Like some other books by Ian Stewart, it does not attempt to explain all the maths to the uninitiated, nor does it describe the technicalities of how the equations have been used in e.g. modern technology: the more mathematically-minded reader may prefer to have a fuller exposition ...more
Pirms gadiem trīs es sajūsmas pilns nopirku šo grāmatu. Viņai paveicās, pēc saņemšanas to atvēru un sāku lasīt. Taču pēc divu nodaļu izlasīšanas man prieks pārgāja, un grāmata tika atlikta malā. Kādēļ es viņai metu mieru, vairs nespēju atcerēties, un tādēļ nolēmu grāmatai dot vēl vienu iespēju.

Šīs grāmatas uzdevums ir parādīt kā matemātika un cilvēces progress iet roku rokā. Daudzas lietas mūsdienās mēs pieņemam kā pašsaprotamas, lietojam tās nemaz nenojaušot, kādi vēsturiski atklājumi matemātik
Alexander Swenson
Ian Stewart takes the ballsy premise of writing a book for casual readers entirely about mathematical equations, but his ability to make this stuff relevant and his determination to make sure you actually understand the equations makes the book really, really compelling. The first half of the book has all dealt with equations I'm formally familiar with, but he provides enough history and application of these equations that it's feels like discovering this stuff all over again. For anyone who's t ...more
Koen Crolla
Most of the equations discussed are from Physics, and a lot of the time it's pretty obvious Stewart is writing outside of his field there—he's probably exactly the wrong person to be writing about the implications of the Copenhagen interpretation.
Another is Shannon's information entropy equation (though Stewart labelled H ``information'', which is obviously wrong), and though information theory is technically a sub-field of mathematics, it's usually handled by computer scientists rather than pur
I have to confess I found some of the maths in this hard work and would not want to take a test on it now! But to focus on this as if it is just a text book is too miss the point. Even if you went through the entire book and did not get any of the maths you would still learn a great deal about how maths has changed the world and our history of understanding our universe (and how much further we have to go!). You also come away with a fantastic appreciation of how much maths goes into the things ...more
'Asem Ismaiel
I suddenly lost interest in this book and decided not to go on with reading it but based on what I've read, the writer really needs to separate his own views when writing a book on Mathematics for example Berkeley's attack on Newton's version of differentiation is totally reasonable since Newton did not give a convenient description for the concept of Limits yet the writer accused him for having an agenda for the church!
Chapters one and two were amazingly useful, I invented a method to calculat
Great book. Ian uses the equations as a launching pad to dive deeper into subjects that surround the equation. I greatly enjoyed his selection of equations. His last paragraph on each equation usually had some great personal commentary about society. I was a little disappointed in the discussion of Maxwell's Equations, as he tried to get a little technical, but then said a couple times that it would be too hard to explain correctly in this book. I'm a physics teacher, and I've seen very good, sh ...more
Ricardo da Fonseca
O livro como o próprio nome deixa muito claro descreve 17 equações que tiveram grande impacto em nossa sociedade. A descrição de cada equação se inicia com tópicos que mostram claramente a importância dela para a humanidade de acordo com as aplicações dessa nos artefatos tecnológicos dos dias de hoje.
A descrição das equações é feita de forma muito interessante, ressaltando-se fatos históricos curiosos que levaram ao desenvolvimento da equação propriamente dita. A descrição da matemática, quando
Jul 31, 2015 Vikram rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: science lover, mathematics, history of science
Interesting book on history of some of the most widely known and impact full mathematical/science equations. Book gives an idea of how those equations got developed by the people working on them. Dont get upset by the title, it doesn'y go into mathematical derivations of the equations. Rather tells the story of development. Recommended for people who love science and mathematics.
Oct 18, 2012 Jim rated it 2 of 5 stars
Shelves: fiction
I found elements of the book very interesting but overall it gets lost in the details. It's a bit of non-fiction meets textbook (I understand most textbooks are inherently non-fiction as well) but not really enough discussion and thesis development to accommodate a complete book in the non-fiction genre and the math is too general to fit in as a refined textbook.

The early chapters are quite developed presenting both the important mathematics and a discussion of the relevance of the equations in
Alex Devero
Mathematical equations have played a vital part in creating today’s world. Mapmaking, satnav, television, music, civil aircrafts, exploring the moons of Jupiter, etc. – none of that would’ve been possible without the help of equations.
Interesting book. Tries to cover too much topics at once when describing the origins of the equations discussed, while lacking context on what brought that equation to be in the first place. It feels a bit more of a long historic narrative rather than an overview of each.
The real world applications and meaning of each equation are a very nice touch.
Worth reading if you are into math/scince history or are a bit of a nerd
Long Nguyen
Complex yet still remaining accessible to someone who has a cursory understanding of math (I only got as far as Calc 1, and it has made understanding utility of something like Log so much more comprehensible now). The book, however, would probably get tough fast for anyone who is not either super into math already, or who has very fleeting experiences with its more advanced subjects.

The last chapter itself though is probably more than worth the reading of this book (the equation that many financ
Some chapters, especially in the middle, about topology and imaginary numbers, are written so unclearly that I learned nothing from them. However, those on thermodynamics and information theory are excellent. An unbalanced book that is nevertheless worth reading.
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Ian Stewart is an Emeritus Professor and Digital Media Fellow in the Mathematics Department at Warwick University, with special responsibility for public awareness of mathematics and science. He is best known for his popular science writing on mathematical themes.
--from the author's website

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“The Black–Scholes equation changed the world by creating a booming quadrillion-dollar industry; its generalisations, used unintelligently by a small coterie of bankers, changed the world again by contributing to a multitrillion-dollar financial crash whose ever more malign effects, now extending to entire national economics, are still being felt worldwide.” 0 likes
“IQ is a statistical method for quantifying specific kinds of problem-solving ability, mathematically convenient but not necessarily corresponding to a real attribute of the human brain, and not necessarily representing whatever it is that we mean by ‘intelligence’.” 0 likes
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