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The Universe in Zero Words: The Story of Mathematics as Told Through Equations

Dana Mackenzie
Princeton University Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Peter Rabinovitch
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The Universe in Zero Words is the latest book by Dana MacKenzie, who you may know as a regular contributor to the AMS series What’s Happening in the Mathematical Sciences. The book is aimed at the interested layman, and proceeds by discussing the history and use of twenty-four equations. The topics range from the ancient (Pythagorean Theorem, 1 + 1 = 2, etc.) through the modern (Black-Scholes, the Lorenz equations, the Chern-Gauss-Bonnet equation).

The chapters are fairly short, typically about five or six pages, and there are interesting illustrations throughout. It is an attractive book.

However, I found it hard to read. It wasn’t the prose, which was excellent, but rather the depth of the content. I kept expecting more depth, more detail and more rigor. Clearly, this is due to my profession. Given that I am not the target audience, I tried an experiment. I gave the book to a seventeen year old university student majoring in biology and asked her to read the chapter on the Lorenz equations, which I enjoyed. Her response was lukewarm when asked if she wanted to read other chapters, or if it made her want to know more about chaos. She did say, however, that she found the chapter easy to understand.

So, I’d suggest looking at the table of contents and/or some chapter samples available at the author’s web site to help you decide if this is the right book for you. You may also want to have a look at Ian Stewart’s In Pursuit of the Unknown: 17 Equations that Changed the World, which seems similar in approach, and was favorably reviewed here.

Peter Rabinovitch is a Systems Architect at Research in Motion. He recently defended his PhD thesis on Mallows permutations, and is now trying to condense it into something readable.

The table of contents is not available.