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Big-(Wo)men, Tyrants, Chiefs, Dictators, Emperors and Presidents

Francesco dell'Isola
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Megan Sawyer
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In an unusual—and often jolting—method of writing, Big-Wo(men) takes the reader through a series of history lessons tied to Arrow’s Theorem, the idea whereby which “there is no possible function of social choice, which depends faithfully on the choice of all individuals belonging to the electoral body and is ‘democratic’ “ (pg. 10).  The crux of this text is the connection dell’Isola makes between the political nature of historical figures and the idea of what democracy means to the author, presumably in his own experiences.  Figures such as the Roman emperor Caesar, tsarina Catherine the Great, and mathematician Pasquale are compared to the logical nature of Arrow’s Theorem to evaluate how democratic ideals fall apart or formulate in the face of dictators.  Occasionally, additional mathematical topics are introduced, such as game theory, to explain these connections in context; however, the addendum feels like just that—extraneous information that does not necessarily lend to the overall “story” dell’Isola is attempting to tell. 
For this reviewer, the format and written flow of the text were very distracting.  With an attempt to both engage the reader in casual conversation—namely by way of parenthetical sidenotes—whilst simultaneously preserving the formality of a textbook, dell’Isola managed to do neither.  The visual formatting with paragraphs punctuated and broken mid-sentence with a boldface phrase served to emphasize the phrase, but for this reader, had the effect of distracting more than other formatting options.  This seems like a nitpicking point, but if this text was used for students, this reviewer could see students struggling with the sheer change in formatting and the unusual method of writing in light of understanding the historical and logical background dell’Isola is trying to present.   
Megan Sawyer is an associate professor of mathematics at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, NH.