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Voltaire's Riddle: Micromégas and the Measure of All Things

A. Simoson
Mathematical Association of America
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
Dolciani Mathematical Expositions 39
[Reviewed by
Tom Schulte
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This is a largely delightful text weaving together Voltaire’s famous satire, history, science, and mathematics.

Unfortunately, the engaging chapters and vignettes are bookended by the book’s weakest material. Chapter one is The Annotated Micromégas. This is a new translation of the Micromégas story. I am sure that Voltaire never intended his near-breathless romp of impossibly large aliens to be subjected to such a thorough exegesis. Nevertheless, here it is, weighted down with a profundity of footnotes. I recall the quote attributed to John Barrymore: “To expect a person to read a footnote is like requiring him to go downstairs to answer the front door on his wedding night.” I say read the story sans footnotes, then go back and take in the notes.

The final chapter is Riddle Resolutions. This contains several obvious and not very insightful theories on the mystery of why an ancient, 120,000-foot-tall extraterrestrial sage leaves behind a blank book for earth’s savants. Actually, delving into the punchline of this shaggy dog story just steals away one of its chuckles without adding any meaning.

It is, however, the greater portion in the middle, the real content of this book, which makes it worth the price of admission. The carelessly tossed-in scientific and mathematical ideas in the stew of one of the world’s first science fiction stories are grist for several engaging chapters. Other sources of ideas for these chapters are the contemporaneous journey of Maupertuis to measure an arc of the globe, Voltaire’s life and times, and comet prediction. From this bevy of departure points the author regales the reader with a tapestry of history, literature and science. What we end up with is part Voltaire biography, part exposition of his life and times, part mathematical textbook.

Each chapter ends with exercises. These start with simple applications of intermediate algebra accessible to a first-year undergraduate or advanced high school student, but knowledge of calculus and ODEs is required to take part in most of exercises. Some solutions and many helpful suggestions await the independent reader in the back of the book. An instructor in calculus or differential equations can mine this work for unexpected and engaging examples to add to a dry textbook.

Particularly memorable chapters touch on the physics of Abbott’s Flatland, the taxonomy of trochoids and pseudocircles, and the surveying of worlds. Simoson gets double points for bringing in Dürer, describing a device he designed for producing trochoids. Then, the author poses the problem of how to decide whether the trochoids that can be made by Dürer’s device appear in Dürer’s designs. This is compared to identifying Voltaire’s works done under a pseudonym.

Maupertius' life and his Lapland expedition to determine whether the Earth is flatter at the poles are major components of this work. Besides a discussion of the polar flattening of the Earth, the author discusses Maupertius' pursuit problem and the precession of the equinoxes.

Along the way, there are plenty of illustrations and figures. These help make the text easy to read and understand. The technical chapters are buffered by the palette-cleansing sorbet of short historical or literary vignettes. I highly recommend this book to the mathematics enthusiast who also loves history and imagination.

Tom Schulte lives and teaches mathematics in Michigan. One of the only non-mathematical textbooks he retains from his undergraduate days is a collection of Voltaire’s writings that includes the tale of Micromégas

Vignette I. A Dinner Invitation
I. The Annotated Micromégas
Vignette II. Here Be Giants!
II. The Micro and the Mega
Vignette III. The Bastille
III. Fragments from Flatland
Vignette IV. A want-to-be mathematician
IV. Newton's Polar Ellipse
Vignette V. A Bourgeois Poet in the Temple of Taste
V. A Mandarin Orange or a Lemon?
Vignette VI. The Zodiac
VI. Hipparchus's Twist
Vignette VII. Love Triangles
VII. Dürer's hypocycloid
Vignette VIII. Maupertuis's Hole
VIII. Newton's Other Ellipse
Vignette IX. The Man in the Moon
IX. Maupertuis's Pursuit Problem
Vignette X. Voltaire and the Almighty
X. Solomon's Π
Vignette XI. Laputa and Gargantua
XI. Moon Pie
Vignette XII. A Last Curtain Call
XII. Riddle Resolutions
Cast of Characters
Comments on Selected Exercises