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# Unknown Quantity: A Real and Imaginary History of Algebra

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? ...morePaperback, 400 pages

Published
May 29th 2007
by Plume
(first published May 2nd 2006)

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## Community Reviews

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My original review—before I realised this John Derbyshire was also John Derbyshire, the racist/homophobe/theotard/hypocrite/all-round dipshit who writes for the National Review—was going to mention how the book takes a naïve attitude towards history that's refreshing in this age of nuance and relative rigor (something that's only remotely acceptable because the book isn't about, and ...more

Dec 27, 2007
Jesse
rated it
really liked it
·
review of another edition

Shelves:
history,
mathematics

There's an inherent difficulty in writing a book of this kind; a significant portion of the material that the author is expected to cover is simply out of the range of readers that lack an extensive background in mathematics. It is, in fact, worse than physics, in which metaphors can be used to give the reader some inkling of what's going on, even if they don't completely understand the reasons behind it. That being said, Derbyshire does a worthy job at a devilishly difficult task.

The first hal ...more

The first hal ...more

The book falls between the stools of "popular math" and math treatments but is not rigorous enough to satisfy those interested in the latter and loses those drawn to the former in splurges of (incomplete) equations and hard to follow

On the plus side the potted histories of the various mathematicians encountered are entertaining and the book is reasonably well written.

It did serve the purpose of illustrating the arcane geography of modern algebra but didn't make me interested in it. Somewhat ...more

Jan 28, 2011
Nur
is currently reading it

Recommended to Nur by:
being a Discrete Mathematics TA

Shelves:
non-fiction

"The story of algebra, is the story of civilization itself..."

I stumbled on this book somewhere at Amazon while searching for books to help me become a better TA in undergraduate Discrete Math class. The class is entirely in Japanese, so imagine studying sets and groups and lattices using symbols (read: kanji) you've never seen and had no clue on the reading and meaning.

I need a good English textbook to keep me sane, and being a fiction-lover, I certainly hope this book could lift my mood in the ...more

I stumbled on this book somewhere at Amazon while searching for books to help me become a better TA in undergraduate Discrete Math class. The class is entirely in Japanese, so imagine studying sets and groups and lattices using symbols (read: kanji) you've never seen and had no clue on the reading and meaning.

I need a good English textbook to keep me sane, and being a fiction-lover, I certainly hope this book could lift my mood in the ...more

There are math primers for each chapter of the history but one, and then there are the aforementioned history/concept chapters. Occasionally dry wit is added into the fray, with a healthy dose of originality and a fresh outlook. Certainly there are more userfriendly approaches to the discipline -- unless one is fluent in rings, ...more

However, there are two approaches to this history of algebra. One is for those who are tickled to death with Edwin Abbott’s Flatland and know the significance of 1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34,55,89,144,233,377, . . . The other is for folks who would like to know which mathematician ...more

Surprisingly, I have found the history sections of these books often to be more interesting than the math sections -- I say surprisingly because I ...more

I am reading a book on Maths, I am about to finish it, and in this book, I found a superb passage:

"I remain completely confident that the labor I have expended on the science presented here and which

hasd emanded a significant part of my life as well as the most strenuous application of my powers, will

not be lost. It is true that I am aware that the form which I have given the science is imperfect and must

be imperfect. But I know and feel obliged to state (though I run the risk of seeming arro ...more

I found it very interesting. It will be more interesting for you if you have heard of Descartes, Gauss, Riemann... and if you have a sense of what a function is, a matrix, a ring. You need not be able to manipulate them, but if you can visualize how they work, you will enjoy this book.

The ...more

I checked this out at the library. Wanting to know more history about mathematics (because I have started doing this monthly thing with my students called the "Mathematician of the Month" where they research a famous mathematician that has had some influence over whatever unit they/we are currently learning), I thought this book by Mr. Derbyshire would be a good choice.

BOOOORING. I did get some good tidbits out of it though. 1) Decartes invented the radical symbol for square roots. 2) De ...more

The sections of the book I liked most were when he tied the developments in the discipline to what was happening in the world at large. I just wish there had been more of this - more contextualization of parallel developments in art, scienc ...more

It was worth it though. Derbyshire is witty and the book was well written and very interesting. Not quite as good as Prime Obsession, but the math was easier for me to follow in that one, so the it w ...more

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