Chris Herdt's Reviews > The Art of the Infinite: The Pleasures of Mathematics

The Art of the Infinite by Robert M. Kaplan
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Apr 13, 12

Read from April 02 to 11, 2012

Prose so purple I claim it was abused. This book needed an editor to cut out the blathering that the authors thought clever. The references to Rimbaud and Proust, to cite just a couple, were completely unnecessary and distracting.

I read the first 3 chapters and then skipped to the last, the chapter on Georg Cantor and aleph-null, aleph-one, and transfinite numbers. (Fun fact: Cantor was a conspiracy theorist!)

I was excited when I read this in the introduction:

"Many small things estrange math from its proper audience. One is the remoteness of its machine-made diagrams. These reinforce the mistaken belief that it is all very far away, on a planet visited only by graduates of the School for Space Cadets. Diagrams printed out from computers communicate a second and subtler falsehood: they lead the reader to think he is seeing the things themselves rather than pixellated approximations to them."

An insightful remark, if somewhat overwrought. Hand-drawn diagrams will make the text feel less imposing and let the reader know that, however true, they are humble human calculations. Brilliant, right?

Unfortunately, the text is ridiculously remote. A sample:

"Have negative numbers definitively moved mathematical thought into abstraction, where the dance of symbols becomes vivid instead of figures? Or do you find the visual proof in the appendix to this chapter not only convincing but illuminating? Notice that in our dances the same steps--axioms of additive and multiplicative inverses, and distributivity--occur again and again. This is because, like squaredances in the confines of a barn, little room to maneuver leads to intricate patterns. The more elaborate these become, each linking onto the last, the more such patterns will all seem to lodge in a sense at once more ancestral and more abstract than sight. It is as if the predominance in our brains of the visual cortex masked a different, deeper apprehension--of time, then, or something akin to music: structure itself."

There's a lot to make fun of in that paragraph, but for me, I have to say: Squaredances? Really? This was published in 2003!

Note: I am apparently the 3rd person to have checked out this copy from the library. The person before me checked it out on 16 August 2004 and it was marked returned on 30 March 2007. I'm going to assume that was a faculty member.
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message 1: by Volvin (new)

Volvin Kavaleri thank you an infinite number of times for this review. I thought it was just me.


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