The Proliferation of Popular Mathematics Books in the 1990s

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The Proliferation of Popular Mathematics Books in the 1990s


The 1990s saw a great increase in the number of books on mathematical subjects addressed to the general public. The content of these books was, for the most part, readily understood by anyone with a basic high school background in mathematics. The following essay provides an overview of this book-publishing and public-interest phenomenon, including discussion of the types of general mathematical works published, focusing on the various formats used by their authors rather than providing an exhaustive bibliography, and brief comment on some specific representative titles. Finally, some reasons will be offered to explain why the 1990s witnessed such a bumper crop of mathematical books.


One type of book that was very popular in the 1990s addresses the history of mathematics, either through biographies of mathematicians or the history of particular mathematical subjects. Biographies, both modern and ancient, give readers insight into the lives and works of mathematicians, and help readers understand the training, talent, dedication, and frustrations that are all part of being a research mathematician. Histories of particular areas of mathematics were also published in the 1990s. The story of the proof of Fermat's Last Theorem, for example, inspired several books addressed to a general audience. Others addressed a range of topics, usually tied together in some way by the author. This approach gave the author the opportunity to sift through various subjects in the history of mathematics and choose those that would make interesting reading for the nonmathematician.

A second format concentrates on a particular subject area, such as calculus, number theory, or statistics. Here the author attempts to make a difficult subject both readable and understandable. This requires some liberty with mathematical rigor, but makes the subject more accessible to the less mathematically inclined reader. A subset of this category includes many books about practical mathematics. In these, the author usually attempts to make readers more knowledgeable about mathematics. They appeal to an audience that wants to know more about everyday applications of mathematics.

In terms of sheer numbers, the most popular type of mathematics book in the 1990s was that which attempted to convey the beauty and excitement of mathematics. Some compared the elegance of mathematics to poetry; others made a case for mathematics as an art rather than a science; still others provided mathematical puzzles and curiosities for their readers' enjoyment. Whatever their forms, these books usually had one primary purpose: to inspire in readers an appreciation for the beauty and elegance of mathematics.


In histories of mathematics, biographies are often effective for telling a story. Four published in the 1990s are of particular interest. The first two chronicle the lives of twentieth-century mathematicians: The Man Who Knew Infinity, by Robert Kanigel, chronicles one of the most fascinating characters in history, the Indian mathematician Srinavasa Ayengar Ramanujan (1887-1920). It is a story of a true genius that ends in tragedy. Another excellent book is The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, by Paul Hoffman. This is a story about Paul Erdös (1913-1996), an eccentric number theorist who traveled the world throughout his lifetime with a singular purpose: to do mathematics. Neither of these biographies is dry reading—both were fascinating men who led incredibly eventful lives.

Two other 1990s biographies chronicle the lives of mathematicians from the past. Archimedes: What Did He Do Beside Cry Eureka?, by Sherman Stein, details the life of the Greek mathematician famous for, among other things, the theory of buoyancy and the law of the lever. In his book Euler: Master of Us All, William Dunham presents the life and works of the eighteenth-century mathematician who is generally regarded as the most prolific mathematician in history.

Authors in the 1990s also wrote on a wide variety of historical topics. While some address whole branches of mathematics, most focus either on one narrow subject or combine essays on related subjects. For instance, Eli Maor's book e: The Story of a Number, traces the history of e, the number that is the base for natural logarithms. Like π, e is extremely important in many areas of mathematics.

Other books combine separate historical topics into one work. Five Golden Rules: Great Theorems of 20th-Century Mathematics and Why They Matter, by John L. Casti, and two books by William Dunham, Journey through Genius: The Great Theorems of Mathematics and The Mathematical Universe: An Alphabetical Journey Through the Great Proofs, Problems, and Personalities, all give the reader an eclectic tour of the many facets of the mathematical world.

A single event of the 1990s spawned the greatest number of attempts to communicate mathematics to the general public. This event was the successful proof of Fermat's Last Theorem by Princeton mathematician Andrew Wiles (1953- ). Wiles proved a theorem that had become the Holy Grail of mathematics and had eluded the greatest mathematical minds for over three centuries. In addition to many newspaper and magazine articles, several books were written to explain the importance of Wiles's accomplishment to the nonmathematician. Simon Singh's book, Fermat's Enigma, is probably the best known of these works, but other well written books such as Notes on Fermat's Last Theorem by Alf van der Poorten and Fermat's Last Theorem: Unlocking the Secret of an Ancient Mathematical Problem, by Amir D. Aczel, also helped spread the story of Wiles's triumph.

The second category of popular mathematical works included books on a variety of subjects, from basic arithmetic to calculus. Many of these say that they contain tools, tricks, and techniques to help the average person become more adept at mathematics. Some, such as David Berlinski's A Tour of the Calculus, present a very serious subject in a somewhat informal, even light-hearted, manner. These appeal to a less general audience than those in the first category, but have found their niche in a world that places more and more emphasis on mathematical ability.

Also falling within this category is a large number of books whose purpose is to teach something about mathematics while at the same time showing how mathematics is used in everyday life. Among the many books written for this purpose are a series of works by John Allen Paulos, including Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences (1990), Beyond Numeracy: Ruminations of a Numbers Man (1992), A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper (1996), and Once Upon a Number (1998). In these books, Paulos draws attention to the mathematics that we are confronted with daily. He also emphasizes the consequences we face if we do not understand the meaning of the statistics that have become part of out everyday experience.

The final category of popular mathematics is the largest in terms of numbers of books published in the 1990s. A search of any database containing published books yields a huge number of works devoted to the beauty and fun that mathematicians find in their subject. These books attempt to convey these feelings towards mathematics to the reader. Titles of books include words like "joy" and "beauty" along with the word "mathematics." Although this seems unusual, possibly even ridiculous, to many people, such books attempt to convey the essence of mathematics to the general public. The Joy of Mathematics: Discovering Mathematics All Around You, by Theoni Pappas, is just one example of such a work.

Another important contribution to the popularization of mathematics in the 1990s did not start out as a book. Life by the Numbers was a television series broadcast by PBS that explored the importance of mathematics in today's society. A companion book to this series by Keith J. Devlin, also entitled Life by the Numbers, explores in written form what the program addressed in video form. Such topics as the statistics of gambling, mathematics in nature, and mathematics in sports, created an extremely informative and entertaining look into the world of mathematical applications.

This is not an exhaustive list of popular works pertaining to mathematics published in the 1990s, and the 1990s were by no means the first time that such works had been published. It does seem, however, that many more books of this nature appeared then than in previous times. We might attribute this to an increasing awareness that mathematical knowledge is an important component of successful modern life. It may also be attributed to the new and creative ways authors have found to present mathematics to the public. Computer-generated graphics, videos, and other technologies have combined to make mathematics more accessible than ever before. Whatever the reasons, these new books have led to an increased awareness of, and appreciation for, the importance of mathematics in our society.


Further Reading

Casti, John L. Five Golden Rules: Great Theories of Twentieth-Century Mathematics and Why They Matter. New York: Wiley & Sons, 1996.

Devlin, Keith. Life By the Numbers. New York: Wiley, 1998.

Dunham, William. Journey Through Genius: The Great Theorems of Mathematics. New York: Wiley, 1990.

Dunham, William. The Mathematical Universe: An Alphabetical Journey Through the Great Proofs, Problems, and Personalities. New York: Wiley & Sons, 1994.

Pappas, Theoni. The Joy of Mathematics: Discovering Mathematics All Around You. San Carlos, CA: Wide World, 1989.

Paulos, John Allen. Once Upon a Number: The Hidden Mathematical Logic of Stories. New York: Basic Books, 1998.

Singh, Simon. Fermat's Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World's Greatest Mathematical Problem. New York: Anchor Books, 1998.

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The Proliferation of Popular Mathematics Books in the 1990s

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