WHY BEAUTY IS TRUTH: A HISTORY OF SYMMETRY by Ian Stewart (Basic), 290 pages, $32.50 cloth. Rating: NN
The title is misleading. This is purely a math history book intended to describe how algebra turned into the study of mathematical symmetries and how that in turn provided useful concepts and equations for quantum physics and the search for the Grand Unified Theory of everything.
Truth and beauty don't get much serious reflection here. The former boils down to "physical reality," the latter to "elegance," and both read as window dressing dropped in to sugarcoat the experience for math-shy readers. That doesn't inspire confidence.
The same uneasy feeling comes across when Stewart promises that he won't make us do any equations. None at all! He takes a whole page to say so, and his reasoning is specious, his tone obsequious. Since Stewart is both a math professor at the University of Warwick and the director of its Mathematics Awareness Centre, we might expect him to show a little more confidence in his subject and his readers.
Stewart takes about half his book to get to his real topic. The first half traces algebra from its Babylonian beginnings, and the method throughout is to mix math with biographical sketches. Again, it feels like window dressing simple, superficial accounts of people who, he assures us, are complex and strange.
Stewart's prose is clear, and he has a good story to tell and some fascinating ideas to present. But he never quite brings his subject to life. In sparing us the work of a few equations he denies us greater mental involvement. And his mild and impersonal tone keeps us at an emotional remove.
Stewart isn't the only writer to take a shot at math for the general reader. If you're interested in the mathematical mind, your own or others', you might do better checking out David Berlinski's A Tour Of The Calculus (Vintage, 1995), where ideas, equations and a sense of the mathematical mind get a livelier airing.