An Imaginary Tale: The Story of the Square Root of Minus One
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An Imaginary Tale: The Story of the Square Root of Minus One

3.94 of 5 stars 3.94  ·  rating details  ·  509 ratings  ·  30 reviews
In An Imaginary Tale, Paul Nahin tells the 2000-year-old history of one of mathematics' most elusive numbers, the square root of minus one, also known as i, re-creating the baffling mathematical problems that conjured it up and the colorful characters who tried to solve them. Addressing readers with both a general and scholarly interest in mathematics, Nahin weaves into th...more
Paperback, 267 pages
Published February 1st 2007 by Princeton University Press (first published 1998)
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I've been bored with reading novels lately, so I was looking for something a bit more inspiring and challenging. This book really hit the spot!

I wouldn't call it a non-fiction book per se, but something more of a supplementary book for those interested in digging deeper into a subject. Here the subject under discussion was complex numbers (specifically the imaginary number i).

In the preface, the author claims that no book has ever been written on this subject alone in a non-text book form, so h...more
Feb 28, 2008 Jason rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: math heads
Great history and math book. You definitely need a lot of math to fully appreciate this book (if you don't have background up to trig, and preferably calculus, you'll find all but the first couple of chapters impenetrable). If you fit the pre-reqs though, it is very interesting. I found how much my math has degenerated as every now and then I just had to shrug and just move on. (I do look forward to going back and with pencil and paper trying out some of the more hairy calculations.) Now, after...more
Yeah, yeah, I should know better than to expect much from a book on math, but I've actually read some decent ones. This one was supposed to be on layman's terms, but it was so technical that it might as well have been written in French. Nothing was explained in plain English--it was all equations and made me feel rather stupid. I'm going to be teaching math, after all, but man, it was way over my head. Not that I expect anyone to actually read it, but just in case you were tempted, don't.
Vicki Cline
I was hoping to really like this book, as it involves my favorite equation, Euler's identity,

e^(i * pi) + 1 = 0.

Such an elegant way to connect the five most important constants in math, along with fundamental mathematical operations. Unfortunately, the understanding of the math involved in the book, which I'm sure I used to have 50 years ago when I got my BA in math, has left me. I had to skip over most of the equations in the book (and there are a lot of them), so I don't even know if I can co...more
I now realize why I took all that #@$%#$ math in University: it was to be able to read this book. Why can't school math be presented like this? Anyway, if you remember any trig or calc read this and enjoy the part where Einstein's contribution to general relativity gets explained it a way that makes sense.

Edit: This is a real math book, with real math. Like, solving differential equations math. But there's a story you can follow without following every step of the calculations as long as you can...more
Nathan Glenn
I'm going to hold off on rating this for now, since the Kindle edition is so messed up that I could not read a lot of the formulas.
This book is a comprehensive history of the number i. It explains the history of the idea of the number itself, its geometric and interpretation, and then its applications.
He says that a high school graduate who studied calculus should be fine reading it, but I wouldn't quite agree. You have to have calculus pretty fresh on your mind to just dive into this. It has so...more
Oct 24, 2008 ajp3 rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: ppl interested in cool shit
Recommended to ajp3 by: kazimitsu tarui
one of the best mathematics books ever written. the last two chapters have significant mathematical formalism (mostly complex analysis), but up until that point almost any calculus student will understand the arguments presented. some of the most elegant and beautiful ideas are covered in this surprisingly short book. I love it and try to read it often.
Best to have some familiarity with calculus; given that, this is a wonderful book about the historical development of mathematics involving imaginary numbers. The final chapters display some powerful ideas that lead to non-intuitive results.
mirela Darau
I simply loved reading this book, and I was thrilled to see how mathematics worked some centuries ago! Another good thing about this book is that the author's arguments and explanations are mostly simple and can be followed...
While best read by those with a pad of paper, a pencil and their fare share of mathematical knowledge, this has been a very cool read about the history of the imaginary number and how mathematicians think.
I will admit to having to read this three times. I will also admit that when I was first introduced to "i" in high school I closed my text and turned my back on the teacher. What compelled me here was the growing realization that, however counter-intuitive the square root of negative one may be, it appears again and again in apparently dissimilar contexts as the only way to a practical solution for certain problems. Or to put it as the author does, we have to move from the real through the imagi...more
I had no idea that the few short lessons I had on the imaginary number had such a complicated background. It was an interesting but tedious read.
May 18, 2010 Zach is currently reading it
An excellent book about the history of one of the most important developments in mathematics!
Clark Lyons
The author gets his message across very well but is too practical for me.
For centuries, mathematicians have struggled to understand the meaning of the square root of negative one. After all, no one has ever identified a number which, when multiplied by itself, yields -1 as a result, so how could the square root exist. And yet, this result kept reappearing in problems, over and over again. Today, the square root of -1, commonly notated as i, forms the basis for complex numbers, which in turn have countless applications in science and engineering.

This book provides a d...more
Maurizio Codogno
A me la storia della matematica è sempre piaciuta, anche perché ogni tanto si scoprono delle chicche niente male. Però in questo caso sono stato parecchio sfortunato.
Diciamo che ho apprezzato la prima metà del libro, con i tentativi iniziali di dare un senso ai numeri insensati... pardon immaginari. Ma nella seconda parte Nahin si ricorda che la sua formazione è quella di ingegnere elettromeccanico. Potete anche dire che io sono pieno di pregiudizi, ma sono troppo abituato a vedere vagonate di...more
It's only been three and a half years since I've been in an upper-level math class, and yet, I felt like a dunce at many points in this book.

Granted, that may have been due to Nahin's decidedly engineer-fascinated-by-math style of writing (that style does exist, I swear; I grew up with my dad teaching me math in a way that can only be described as filtered through an engineer's mind); aside from my dad, the people I spoke math with were all mathematicians.

I should have read this when I first rec...more
Lots of fun, written by an electrical engineer, and correspondingly practical in its outlook. Excellent worked examples and excellent history all the way up to Euler, Wessel and Cauchy. There is one serious oversight which is the lack of attention to the important connection between algebra (i.e. of rotations and geometric extensions) and complex numbers. Indeed these days the 'i' part of a complex number is just a directed bivector. Hamilton is mentioned in a brief few pages, without even a men...more
Mar 08, 2014 Dntai is currently reading it
I thinks it is great to read
Excellent book that makes Cauchy's contour integrals around simple poles using branch cuts understandable to practically anyone with curiosity. A joy to read.
If you don't have a great mathematical mind, but care about math, this is a massively difficult text.

His claim that you can read it with basic math skills is at best a delusion.

Every page seems to have at least 2 math problems and I couldn't figure out even what I didn't know about the problems by the third chapter (not the full third chapter)

So, I have given up on this book until my skills in calculus and algebraic proofs are about 10 to 100 times better.
Rich Bergmann
Simply a FUN READ!
I'm taking a complex variables class right now, and this book is basicallly the history of imaginary numbers. It's interesting, but I'll probably skim a lot.
Neat, entertaining history behind a mathematic concept. Ties in lots of famous names in mathematics and physics. Thanks, Kevin!
Nov 12, 2012 Rod marked it as to-read
Some interesting geometric perspectives. Geometry was never my strong suit, so these pasages have slowed me down.
Tom Wiebe

Of interest because it provides a decent explanation of complex geometry.

Will reread this after mastering calculus and complex numbers.
Carmen Mandel
"Incredible journey to imaginary numbers"
F Avery
Not bad, but not great either.
very math heavy.
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