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In Pursuit of the Unknown: 17 Equations That Changed the World

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In In Pursuit of the Unknown, celebrated mathematician Ian Stewart uses a handful of mathematical equations to explore the vitally important connections between math and human progress. We often overlook the historical link between mathematics and technological advances, says Stewart—but this connection is integral to any complete understanding of human history.

Equations are modeled on the patterns we find in the world around us, says Stewart, and it is through equations that ...

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In Pursuit of the Unknown: 17 Equations That Changed the World

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Overview


In In Pursuit of the Unknown, celebrated mathematician Ian Stewart uses a handful of mathematical equations to explore the vitally important connections between math and human progress. We often overlook the historical link between mathematics and technological advances, says Stewart—but this connection is integral to any complete understanding of human history.

Equations are modeled on the patterns we find in the world around us, says Stewart, and it is through equations that we are able to make sense of, and in turn influence, our world. Stewart locates the origins of each equation he presents—from Pythagoras’s Theorem to Newton’s Law of Gravity to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity—within a particular historical moment, elucidating the development of mathematical and philosophical thought necessary for each equation’s discovery. None of these equations emerged in a vacuum, Stewart shows; each drew, in some way, on past equations and the thinking of the day. In turn, all of these equations paved the way for major developments in mathematics, science, philosophy, and technology. Without logarithms (invented in the early 17th century by John Napier and improved by Henry Briggs), scientists would not have been able to calculate the movement of the planets, and mathematicians would not have been able to develop fractal geometry. The Wave Equation is one of the most important equations in physics, and is crucial for engineers studying the vibrations in vehicles and the response of buildings to earthquakes. And the equation at the heart of Information Theory, devised by Claude Shannon, is the basis of digital communication today.

An approachable and informative guide to the equations upon which nearly every aspect of scientific and mathematical understanding depends, In Pursuit of the Unknown is also a reminder that equations have profoundly influenced our thinking and continue to make possible many of the advances that we take for granted.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Stewart (Game, Set, and Math) shares his enthusiasm as well as his knowledge in this tour of ground-breaking equations and the research they supported. “Equations are the lifeblood of mathematics, science, and technology,” allowing scientists, engineers, and even economists to quantify ideas and concepts. Stewart, Warwick University emeritus professor of mathematics, proceeds chronologically, beginning with Pythagoras’ theorem. He opens each chapter with an equation, then summarizes its importance and the technological developments it brought about. Many of the equations are famous, from Maxwell’s equations unifying electricity and magnetism, and of course Einstein’s “E=mc²”, to Schrödinger’s equation and its unhappy cat. Some are broader mathematical concepts rather than equations, from logarithms and calculus to chaos theory. Two surprising inclusions are the math behind information theory, created by Claude Shannon, and the infamous Black-Scholes equation—aka the “Midas” formula, which describes how the price of a stock derivative changes over time (which he implicates in the current financial crisis). Stewart assembles an entertaining and illuminating collection of curious facts and histories suitable for random dipping-in or reading straight through. Agent: George Lucas, Inkwell Management. (Mar.)
From the Publisher

Publishers Weekly

“Stewart shares his enthusiasm as well as his knowledge in this tour of ground-breaking equations and the research they supported…. An entertaining and illuminating collection of curious facts and histories suitable for random dipping-in or reading straight through.”

Kirkus Reviews

“Stewart provides clear, cogent explanations of how the equations work without burdening the reader with cumbersome derivations…. He gives a fascinating explanation of how Newton’s laws, when extended to three-body problems, are still used by NASA to calculate the best route from Earth to Mars and have laid the basis for chaos theory. Throughout, Stewart’s style is felicitous.”
 
Discover

“Seemingly basic equations have enabled us to predict eclipses, engineer earthquake-proof buildings, and invent the refrigerator. In this lively volume, mathematician Ian Stewart delves into 17 equations that shape our daily existence, including those dreamed up by the likes of Einstein, Newton, and Erwin Schrödinger.”
 
Maclean’s
“Stewart is the finest living math popularizer – a writer who can tackle eye-spraining mathematical topics approachably, and yet dazzle hard-core nerds with new and surprising information. It is hard not to get your money’s worth from him, and in a book like this he is at his best because of the very wide ground covered.”
 
Library Journal
“Stewart’s expertise and his well-developed style (enhanced by a nice sense of humor) make for enjoyable reading…. [A] worthwhile and entertaining book, accessible to all readers. Recommended for anyone interested in the influence of mathematics on the development of science and on the emergence of our current technology-driven society.”

WashingtonIndependent Review of Books

“Stewart has managed to produce a remarkably readable, informative and entertaining volume on a subject about which few are as well informed as they would like to be.”

New YorkJournal of Books

“Stewart is a genius in the way he conveys his excitement and sense of wonder…. He has that valuable grasp of not only what it takes to make equations interesting, but also to make science cool.”

Steve Mirsky, Scientific American

“[Stewart] takes the reader on an engaging tour of vital math for a modern world…. I highly recommend Stewart’s wonderfully accessible book.”

Physics Today
In Pursuit of the Unknown is an interesting and highly entertaining book. It would make a great gift for a bright high school grandchild who has expressed interest in a technical life, or for a physicist’s own secret reading.”

Kirkus Reviews
Stewart (Mathematics Emeritus/Warwick Univ.; The Mathematics of Life, 2011, etc.) unravels the secret history of equations that "have been pulling the strings of society, [t]ucked away behind the scenes." The author shows how mathematics has played a crucial role in the "ascent of humanity," but were merely steps in the technological advances that followed. He begins with Pythagoras' Theorem, the essence of which was discovered thousands of years before and laid the basis for navigation and astronomy. He ends with the Black-Scholes Equation, the mathematical formula that created the possibility for computerized derivatives trading and arguably the recent economic meltdown, and urges the need for more regulation of financial markets. Stewart provides clear, cogent explanations of how the equations work without burdening the reader with cumbersome derivations. Instead, he uses them to elaborate his thesis that mathematics, despite its pivotal influence, does not in itself change the world. He gives a fascinating explanation of how Newton's laws, when extended to three-body problems, are still used by NASA to calculate the best route from Earth to Mars and have laid the basis for chaos theory. Throughout, Stewart's style is felicitous and mostly accessible. While the early chapters of the book, which cover trigonometry, calculus and statistics, offer an excellent introduction, the late chapters, which cover quantum, information and chaos theory, require more scientific background to be fully understood. A readable but not simple mathematical guidebook to the labyrinth of mathematics.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465029730
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 3/13/2012
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author


Ian Stewart is Emeritus Professor of Mathematics and active researcher at the University of Warwick. He is also a regular research visitor at the University of Houston, the Institute of Mathematics and Its Applications in Minneapolis, and the Santa Fe institute. His writing has appeared in New Scientist, Discover, Scientific American, and many newspapers in the U.K. and U.S. He lives in Coventry, England.
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