Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “A History of π” as Want to Read:
A History of π
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

A History of π

3.89  ·  Rating Details ·  2,061 Ratings  ·  98 Reviews
The history of pi, says the author, though a small part of the history of mathematics, is nevertheless a mirror of the history of man. Petr Beckmann holds up this mirror, giving the background of the times when pi made progress -- and also when it did not, because science was being stifled by militarism or religious fanaticism.
Paperback, 208 pages
Published July 15th 1976 by St. Martin's Griffin (first published January 1st 1970)
More Details... edit details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
filter  |  sort: default (?)  |  Rating Details
Andrew Breslin
Apr 22, 2013 Andrew Breslin rated it really liked it
I received this book on March 14, during my annual pi day celebration. We had finished the pizza, but hadn’t gotten to the apple pie yet. We were listening to a special music mix for the occasion, including “Circle Dream,” by 10,000 maniacs, “Wagon Wheel,” by Old Crow Medicine Show and of course, “American Pie,” by Don Mclean. And while the pie was delicious, this made for an even tastier dessert.

What the world needs now are more opinionated and bellicose mathematicians, and I’m itching to pumme
Chad Bearden
Oct 05, 2008 Chad Bearden rated it liked it
Shelves: popular-science
The fact that it was written in 1971 adds a little bit of out-of-date flavor that makes "A History of Pi" a lot more amusing than it otherwise might have been.

As a history of pi, it kind of doesn't really work for a couple of reasons. First of all, its not really a history of pi. Its more like a history of mathematics in general. But even there, its far too anecdotal to serve as any real history lesson. Beckmann jumps and skips from one era to another giving you the lowdown on a random sampling
Dec 26, 2016 Charles rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book earns five stars for the explanations of the history how the knowledge of the ratio of the circumference of a circle to the diameter (π) progressed. The rating was reduced due to the inclusion of several snarky and otherwise irrelevant comments regarding politics and the actions of governments.
For reasons that have never been understood, π has received far more attention than all of the other constants. Even though other numbers, such as e, the base of the natural logarithms, are ju
Jul 22, 2008 Dustin rated it liked it
Shelves: pop-science
In the first few pages, the author describes this book as being 'light on the math.' Well, you could have fooled me! Clearly, it is a book about math, and more than that, it is a book about a transcendental number, a constant that can NOT be written. So, starting from that point, you know that any math this *is* included is likely to be bizarre. Fair enough.

However, when the first few examples he gives of how the ancients found their values for pi are rendered into oh-so-simple differential calc
Oct 09, 2009 Jesse rated it it was ok
The History of π is a fascinating work in the sense that it provides a narrative which frames for the reader, the development of this infamous mathematical constant’s calculation. The logical sequence of mathematical proofs as interwoven with the text is surely the strong point of the work. The weakness lies in the author’s multitude of obvious personal biases. Beckmann’s passionate political views quickly transform his attempt at a serious account in the history of science, to an ardent rant ag ...more
May 02, 2016 Diego rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Halfway through the book, the author writes that "the digits beyond the first few decimal places [of Pi] are of no practical scientific value. Four decimal places are sufficient for the design of the finest engines; ten decimal places would be sufficient to obtain the circumference of the earth within a fraction of an inch". And yet I find myself continuing reading through the rest of the book of how new methods to find more decimals places were discovered.
Although a little outdated in the last
Jan 01, 2012 Mark rated it liked it
I had no idea the history of a transcendental number could be so politicized! Wastes an entire chapter complaining about how the Romans were a bunch of pricks that he describes as a "thug state." Good for a giggle, and some good info about pi, but he holds nothing back when it comes to his Zionist agenda.
Mar 01, 2015 Jeff rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: mathochists?
Shelves: non-fiction, numbiz
Dear Goodreads Admins:

Please rig your system so that the average star rating for this book is equal to the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter, rounded to three significant digits.


P.S. I am still almost as ignorant about π as i was before reading this book. Disappointing.
Dec 23, 2009 Tara rated it liked it
The title is pretty self-explanatory. You want to know how pi was discovered? Read this.

For some reason I'm semi-fascinated with the discovery of math... If anyone knows a good book about vectors let me know!
Junaid Selahadin
Apr 19, 2014 Junaid Selahadin rated it it was amazing
I'm very interesting on pi and I'm very exiting now .i want read now .thank u
Jun 20, 2017 Robert rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Interesting presentation about PI, and a devastating critique of how first Rome then the Roman Catholic Church postponed progress for nearly two millennia.

Just technical enough to tell the story, an enjoyable and fast read.
Neelima Yeddanapudi
Reading for pi day.
Dec 31, 2012 James rated it it was amazing
This is one of the best non-fiction books I've ever read.

I stumbled across it in the process of looking for Beckmann's monograph "The Scattering of Electromagnetic Waves from Rough Surfaces" for some E/M research I was involved with. It's a great treatise, but that's beside the point. Next to it on the shelf was "A History of Pi."

Pi itself is an interesting subject, but Beckmann is only hijacking the fundamental constant to tell the broader story of the history of mathematics. Each milestone, ea
Jan 01, 2008 Owen rated it liked it
Shelves: 2008
This is the kind of book that Barnes & Noble publishes then practically gives away around Christmas as suggested stocking stuffers. I think that's how I ended up with it. Anyway, this book turned out to be much better than anticipated. It traces pi throughout history, going back to Babylonians and Egyptians and guessing how they might have arrived at their calculations. Practically every famous mathematician--Euclid, Descartes, Archimedes, Galileo Newton, Euler, etc--is discussed here, as pi ...more
Keith Parrish
Apr 22, 2014 Keith Parrish rated it really liked it
When my oldest daughter was accepted to the North Carolina School of Science and Math (a college level high school for the smartest and nerdiest students in North Carolina), I went with her to orientation. At one of the sessions, the chairman of the math department came out and said, "This is what we teach in math here at NCSSM." Forty-five minutes later I leaned over to my daughter and said, "Have you understood anything in the last 45 minutes?" Saying that she had, I was baffled but reassured. ...more
Feb 02, 2011 Papias rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I'm enjoying this book; even with Beckmann's rants. But my problem is with his willful ignoring of facts, especially when you consider how little tolerance Beckmann has for good research. For example take this passage from the chapter Night:
In 1486, Torquemada sentenced the Spanish mathematician Valmes to be burned at the stake because Valmes had claimed to have found the solution of the quartic equation. It was the will of God, maintained the Grand Inquisitor of the Holy Office of the Inquisit
Stuart Macmartin
A lot of good information, some fun facts and something about various mathematicians. I agree with many reviewers' comments about his rants - sometimes I wondered if the point of the book was to be a soapbox for railing against any kind of oppression, especially against science. These asides were sometimes fun but got in the way of the history, and his broad simplistic characterizations of some societies didn't help his credibility. His last chapter was a bit naive even for the time, IMO.

I did f
Jan 03, 2013 Liam rated it really liked it
"'History records the names of royal bastards, but cannot tell us the origins of wheat.'" (quoting Jean Henri Fabre, 9)

"'I thought it fit to write out for you and explain in detail in the same book the peculiarity of a certain method, by which it will be possible for you to investigate some of the problems in mathematics by means of mechanics. This procedure is, I am persuaded, no less useful even for the proofs of the theorems themselves; for certain things first became clear to me by a mechani
Jan 22, 2016 Casey rated it liked it
I'm sitting here and thinking I might need to change my star rating to a 2-star. The book is okay. Certainly it is a bit dated being published in the early 70s, but that isn't strictly what I struggled with. There are some interesting and entertaining moments (even when Bechmann rants against certain institutions and historical views)... alas, the flow of it, especially as the history of a 'number' is practically non-existent with so much tangential material.

If you want a good example of one --
Jan 20, 2013 Todd rated it liked it
The author of this text is an Electrical Engineer by trade, and this contributes to the lion's share of the comedy throughout. Beckmann is ridiculously biased in favor of the practical application of mathematics, falling all over Archimedes in the beginning of the book and going non-stop from there. The history of Pi is the history of humanity, and this is a good overview, touching on many of the actors who contributed to it over the centuries. His admiration for Newton and Euler shine through, ...more
Nov 29, 2016 Cade rated it liked it
This book is a fun, quick read. The parts about pi keep moving along nicely from ancient Greek astronomy to pre-calculus enlightenment to post-calculus to modern computers. The computer portion is totally out of date today, but that is no fault of the book. The strange thing about this book is that the author can't resist throwing in polemical comments and sometimes multi-paragraph (nearly whole chapters) diatribes. His targets include the USSR, the UN, the Roman Empire, religion (with special e ...more
Mikko Karvonen
Jul 05, 2010 Mikko Karvonen rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: no-one
Fascinating subject - awful book.

While Beckman may know his mathematics and the story of pi, he lacks many other qualities necessary to write historical books. The writing is full of factual errors and problematic generalizations about non-mathematical things, as well as obnoxious and belittling attitude towards ancient cultures, their achivements and views of the world. A history books should not include off-hand remarks on how many historical mathematical documents arabs wiped their bottoms wi
Jul 13, 2009 James rated it liked it
Shelves: maths
An entertaining account of Pi in it's historical context. Beckmann has a tendency to go on tangents in an attempt to analyze why certain societies were important in Pi's history and others weren't. Some of these tangents are more interesting than others, but it is usually easy to separate Beckmann's opinion from historical fact. I was impressed with a few of the geometric presentations included (such as Descartes's method for finding Pi). I wish more information about continued fractions and the ...more
James Lundy
Mar 27, 2008 James Lundy rated it liked it
Recommends it for: nerds, math fans, history buffs, people who study numerology
The history of math and science (and therefore scientific thought, and therefore mankind) is a fascinating field. I was exposed to it in high school by a Jesuit priest who was a fanatic about it. I think I remember more about the history of science than I do about science. Anyway, this is a good read, maybe lasts a little longer than your interest in Pi does but I think it walks the middle road between too simplified and too scholarly. If you don't read the book remember this: if you have a calc ...more
Kirttimukha TheCat
Jul 09, 2010 Kirttimukha TheCat rated it liked it
Shelves: 2010-read
Really interesting historical discussion of the development of Pi and it's continuing refinement. The author is quite opinionated, but in that gives a new and interesting perspective on history. He is critical of the pax romana for example, because it is a peace achieved by conquering those who would normally fight each other. My favorite chapter is about Pi in the computer age. The book was published in 1970 and the description of a device that is cutting edge technology and roams the physics l ...more
Aug 10, 2015 Geoffrey rated it it was amazing
Gosh, this is an amazing book. It covers a lot of world history. It begins with humans use of numbers and counting. Wow. It looks at how different cultures used different numbers for Pi and why - how could they come up with that number. He covers the affect of the dark ages; loss of knowledge at Alexandria. I learned about Archimedes, Laplace, Newton, Euler, their contributions to math and their lives. As a lover of Christian scripture I was tickled that he found Pi in the Bible. This was a very ...more
Apr 06, 2009 Joe rated it really liked it
Shelves: physics
Beckmann's book is not really a history of pi so much as it is a history of mathematics peppered with diatribes about how dumb the Romans were. Seriously, he throws the words "thugs" and "thieves" around quite a bit and makes more than one comparison to the Nazis and Stalinist Russia. It's pretty great!

I couldn't say there is much to be taken away from A History of Pi though. It's engaging and well-composed, but not very thought-provoking absent any real controversy or plot direction. It's just
Jacob Lines
Nov 06, 2014 Jacob Lines rated it really liked it
Beckmann starts this book by explaining that he is qualified to write the history of pi because he is neither a historian nor a mathematician. He isn't just making a joke. Instead of giving a historian's impartial account, or a mathematician's proofs, he gives us an opinionated rollicking account of how humans have figured out and used that magical number of pi. His amusing asides about politics (he escaped from communist eastern Europe) are worth the read alone. If you have a layperson's intere ...more
Jun 04, 2008 John rated it it was amazing
Everything I ever wanted to know about the number Pi: its influence on early cultures, its various origins, simple applications, its significance as an irrational number, the absurd pursuits of the endless digits, etc. (it's been sometime since I've read this so I know I'm missing some stuff)

This book is not boring. If you are willing to open your eyes to the beauty of mathematics then exploring the number Pi will astound you with humanity's desire to understand this significant and, equally, in
Ekaterina Gayetskaya
Nov 15, 2012 Ekaterina Gayetskaya rated it it was amazing
This is a very interesting account of mathematics' most infamous number and it's accuracy tracked chronologically through different civilizations. The author draws sociological conclusions relating the accuracy of Pi to how brutish or religious a society was that might make a sociologist or an anthropologist cringe, but to a mathematics degree such as myself it was rather enlightening. Note that the author has no use for religion or communism and does not mince words about either.
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »
  • e: the Story of a Number
  • An Imaginary Tale: The Story of the Square Root of Minus One
  • The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero
  • A Tour of the Calculus
  • The Joy of Pi
  • Prime Obsession: Bernhard Riemann and the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics
  • Mathematical Sorcery
  • The Riemann Hypothesis: The Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics
  • Mathematics: From the Birth of Numbers
  • The Mathematical Experience
  • The Music of the Primes: Searching to Solve the Greatest Mystery in Mathematics
  • The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, the World's Most Astonishing Number
  • Journey through Genius: The Great Theorems of Mathematics
  • The Infinite Book: A Short Guide to the Boundless, Timeless and Endless
  • The Math Book: From Pythagoras to the 57th Dimension, 250 Milestones in the History of Mathematics
  • Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea
  • Fermat's Last Theorem: Unlocking the Secret of an Ancient Mathematical Problem
  • Four Colors Suffice: How the Map Problem Was Solved

Share This Book

“If we do not require a calendar to be geared to a tropical year (earth's orbit), but only that it be geared to some part of the celestial clock, then the Maya calendar was more accurate than the Julian calendar, more accurate than the Babylonian (solar-lunar) calendar; it intermeshed the "gear wheels" of Sun, Moon and Venus, and was based on a more accurate "gear ratio" than the other calendars, repeating itself only once in 52 years.” 1 likes
“Then there is Roman engineering: the Roman roads, aqueducts, the Colosseum. Warfare, alas, has always been beneficial to engineering. Yet there are unmistakeable trends in the engineering of the gamgster states. In a healthy society, engineering design gets smarter and smarter; in gangster states, it gets bigger and bigger. In World War II, the democracies produced radar and split the atom; German basic research was far behind in these fields and devoted its efforts to projects like lenses so bog they could burn Britain, and bells so big that their sound would be lethal. (The lenses never got off the drawing board, and the bells, by the end of the war, would kill mice in a bath tub.) Roman engineering, too, was void of all subtlety. Roman roads ran absolutely straight; when they came to a mountain, they ran over the top of the mountain as pigheadedly as one of Stalin's frontal assaults. Greek soldiers used to adapt their camps to the terrain; but the Roman army, at the end of a days' march, would invariably set up exactly the same camp, no matter whether in the Alps or in Egypt. If the terrain did not correspond to the one and only model decreed by the military bureaucracy, so much the worse for the terrain; it was dug up until it fitted inti the Roman Empire. The Roman aqueducts were bigger than those that had been used centuries earlier in the ancient world; but they were administered with extremely poor knowledge of hydraulics. Long after Heron of Alexandria (1st Century A.D.) had designed water clocks, water turbines and two-cylinder water pumps, and had written works on these subjects, the Romans were still describing the performance of their aqueducts in terms of the quinaria, a measure of the cross-section of the flow, as if the volume of the flow did not also depend on its velocity. The same unit was used in charging users of large pipes tapping the aqueduct; the Roman engineers failed to realize that doubling the cross-section would more than double the flow of water. Heron could never have blundered like this.” 0 likes
More quotes…