“Mathematics Without Apologies”
By Michael Harris
Princeton University Press, 464pp | Buy on Amazon
Mathematics is considered a problematic vocation, because, let’s face it, mathematicians can be weird. But that’s mostly because people don’t understand mathematics, let alone mathematicians which can be even more problematic. Why do (pure) mathematicians do what they do? Michael Harris, professor of mathematics at the Université Paris Diderot and Columbia University, offers a personal account of “Mathematics without apologies”.
Moving past common themes like Mathematics is “beautiful” or “elegant”, the book tries to situate the place of mathematics in human culture today. The context is laid with the help of his personal experience as a mathematician, but also the myths and assertions of famous figures in the field like Archimedes or, more recently, Alexander Grothendieck and Robert Langlands.
If you have no idea how mathematicians think or what they obsesses about, you’ll find this book intriguing to say the least. You might also find it terribly hard to read. Harris’ extremely cautionary and precise tone doesn’t make this easy, that’s for sure. But Harris delves into some serious debates like are mathematicians (quants) responsible for the 2008 financial crisis (no)? There’s also some mini-courses on mathematics. Don’t worry – you can understand them with no prior training and they’re all laid down in a humorous tones in his chapter series “how to explain number theory at a dinner party”.
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