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When Least Is Best: How Mathematicians Discovered Many Clever Ways to Make Things as Small (or as Large) as Possible

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Princeton, NJ, U.S.A. 2004 Hardcover New 0691070784. FLAWLESS COPY, BRAND NEW, PRISTINE, NEVER OPENED--328 pages. Bryce Christensen, writing in "Booklist" says: "How can a ... factory manager minimize breakdowns? How can a disoriented hiker reach her car in the least possible time? In answering questions such as these, engineer Nahin delivers maximal mathematical enjoyment with minimal perplexity and boredom. Classical minimization problems allow Nahin to showcase the ingenuity of ancient mathematicians--and to let general readers in on the thrill of riding high-school geometry and algebra to breakthrough insights. Knowledgeable readers will probably anticipate the eventual transition from subtle geometry to complex calculus. But even specialists may learn from Nahin's chronicle of how the often-forgotten tangents of Pierre de Fermat paved the way to the calculus of Newton and Leibniz. In addition, Nahin deftly interweaves episodes from the lives of its discoverers: a rash Belgian theorist loses his sight star Read more Show Less

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Overview

What is the best way to photograph a speeding bullet? Why does light move through glass in the least amount of time possible? How can lost hikers find their way out of a forest? What will rainbows look like in the future? Why do soap bubbles have a shape that gives them the least area? By combining the mathematical history of extrema with contemporary examples, Paul J. Nahin answers these intriguing questions and more in this engaging and witty volume. He shows how life often works at the extremes -- with values becoming as small (or as large) as possible -- and how mathematicians over the centuries have struggled to calculate these problems of minima and maxima. From medieval writings to the development of modern calculus to the current field of optimization, Nahin tells the story of Dido's problem, Fermat and Descartes, Torricelli, Bishop Berkeley, Goldschmidt, and more. Along the way, he explores how to build the shortest bridge possible between two towns, how to shop for garbage bags, how to vary speed during a race, and how to make the perfect basketball shot. Written in a conversational tone and requiring only an early undergraduate level of mathematical knowledge, When Least Is Best is full of fascinating examples and ready-to-try-at-home experiments. This is the first book on optimization written for a wide audience, and math enthusiasts of all backgrounds will delight in its lively topics.
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Editorial Reviews

Mathematical Intelligener

This book is highly recommended.
— Clark Kimberling
MAA Online - Bonnie Shulman
This book was terrific fun to read! I thought I would skim the chapters to write my review, but I was hooked by the preface, and read through the first 100 pages in one sitting. . . . [Nahin shows] obvious delight and enjoyment—he is having fun and it is contagious.
IEEE Control Systems Magazine - Dennis S. Bernstein
When Least is Best is clearly the result of immense effort. . . . [Nahin] just seems to get better and better. . . . The book is really a popular book of mathematics that touches on a broad range of problems associated with optimization.
Mathematical Intelligencer - Clark Kimberling
This book is highly recommended.
Contemporary Physics - D.R. Wilkins
A valuable and stimulating introduction to problems that have fascinated mathematicians and physicists for millennia.
SIAM Review - Donald R. Sherbert
Anyone with a modest command of calculus, a curiosity about how mathematics developed, and a pad of paper for calculations will enjoy Nahin's lively book. His enthusiasm is infectious, his writing style is active and fluid, and his examples always have a point. . . . [H]e loves to tell stories, so even the familiar is enjoyably refreshed.
From the Publisher
"This book was terrific fun to read! I thought I would skim the chapters to write my review, but I was hooked by the preface, and read through the first 100 pages in one sitting. . . . [Nahin shows] obvious delight and enjoyment—he is having fun and it is contagious."—Bonnie Shulman, MAA Online

"When Least is Best is clearly the result of immense effort. . . . [Nahin] just seems to get better and better. . . . The book is really a popular book of mathematics that touches on a broad range of problems associated with optimization."—Dennis S. Bernstein, IEEE Control Systems Magazine

"[When Least is Best is] a wonderful sourcebook from projects and is just plain fun to read."Choice

"This book is highly recommended."—Clark Kimberling, Mathematical Intelligencer

"A valuable and stimulating introduction to problems that have fascinated mathematicians and physicists for millennia."—D.R. Wilkins, Contemporary Physics

"Nahin delivers maximal mathematical enjoyment with minimal perplexity and boredom. . . . [He lets] general readers in on the thrill of riding high-school geometry and algebra to breakthrough insights. . . . A refreshingly lucid and humanizing approach to mathematics."Booklist

"Anyone with a modest command of calculus, a curiosity about how mathematics developed, and a pad of paper for calculations will enjoy Nahin's lively book. His enthusiasm is infectious, his writing style is active and fluid, and his examples always have a point. . . . [H]e loves to tell stories, so even the familiar is enjoyably refreshed."—Donald R. Sherbert, SIAM Review

MAA Online
This book was terrific fun to read! I thought I would skim the chapters to write my review, but I was hooked by the preface, and read through the first 100 pages in one sitting. . . . [Nahin shows] obvious delight and enjoyment—he is having fun and it is contagious.
— Bonnie Shulman
IEEE Control Systems Magazine
When Least is Best is clearly the result of immense effort. . . . [Nahin] just seems to get better and better. . . . The book is really a popular book of mathematics that touches on a broad range of problems associated with optimization.
— Dennis S. Bernstein
Choice
[When Least is Best is] a wonderful sourcebook from projects and is just plain fun to read.
Mathematical Intelligencer
This book is highly recommended.
— Clark Kimberling
Contemporary Physics
A valuable and stimulating introduction to problems that have fascinated mathematicians and physicists for millennia.
— D.R. Wilkins
Booklist
Nahin delivers maximal mathematical enjoyment with minimal perplexity and boredom. . . . [He lets] general readers in on the thrill of riding high-school geometry and algebra to breakthrough insights. . . . A refreshingly lucid and humanizing approach to mathematics.
SIAM Review
Anyone with a modest command of calculus, a curiosity about how mathematics developed, and a pad of paper for calculations will enjoy Nahin's lively book. His enthusiasm is infectious, his writing style is active and fluid, and his examples always have a point. . . . [H]e loves to tell stories, so even the familiar is enjoyably refreshed.
— Donald R. Sherbert
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691070780
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 11/24/2003
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.46 (h) x 1.13 (d)

Meet the Author

Paul J. Nahin is Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering at the University of New Hampshire. He is the author of many books, including the bestselling "An Imaginary Tale: The Story of the Square Root of Minus One", "Duelling Idiots and Other Probability Puzzlers", and "Dr. Euler's Fabulous Formula: Cures Many Mathematical Ills" (all Princeton).

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Table of Contents

Preface
1 Minimums, Maximums, Derivatives, and Computers 1
1.1 Introduction 1
1.2 When Derivatives Don't Work 4
1.3 Using Algebra to Find Minimums 5
1.4 A Civil Engineering Problem 9
1.5 The AM-GM Inequality 13
1.6 Derivatives from Physics 20
1.7 Minimizing with a Computer 24
2 The First Extremal Problems 37
2.1 The Ancient Confusion of Length and Area 37
2.2 Dido's Problem and the Isoperimetric Quotient 45
2.3 Steiner's "Solution" to Dido's Problem 56
2.4 How Steiner Stumbled 59
2.5 A "Hard" Problem with an Easy Solution 62
2.6 Fagnano's Problem 65
3 Medieval Maximization and Some Modern Twists 71
3.1 The Regiomontanus Problem 71
3.2 The Saturn Problem 77
3.3 The Envelope-Folding Problem 79
3.4 The Pipe-and-Corner Problem 85
3.5 Regiomontanus Redux 89
3.6 The Muddy Wheel Problem 94
4 The Forgotten War of Descartes and Fermat 99
4.1 Two Very Different Men 99
4.2 Snell's Law 101
4.3 Fermat, Tangent Lines, and Extrema 109
4.4 The Birth of the Derivative 114
4.5 Derivatives and Tangents 120
4.6 Snell's Law and the Principle of Least Time 127
4.7 A Popular Textbook Problem 134
4.8 Snell's Law and the Rainbow 137
5 Calculus Steps Forward, Center Stage 140
5.1 The Derivative: Controversy and Triumph 140
5.2 Paintings Again, and Kepler's Wine Barrel 147
5.3 The Mailable Package Paradox 149
5.4 Projectile Motion in a Gravitational Field 152
5.5 The Perfect Basketball Shot 158
5.6 Halley's Gunnery Problem 165
5.7 De L'Hospital and His Pulley Problem, and a New Minimum Principle 171
5.8 Derivatives and the Rainbow 179
6 Beyond Calculus 200
6.1 Galileo's Problem 200
6.2 The Brachistochrone Problem 210
6.3 Comparing Galileo and Bernoulli 221
6.4 The Euler-Lagrange Equation 231
6.5 The Straight Line and the Brachistochrone 238
6.6 Galileo's Hanging Chain 240
6.7 The Catenary Again 247
6.8 The Isoperimetric Problem, Solved (at last!) 251
6.9 Minimal Area Surfaces, Plateau's Problem, and Soap Bubbles 259
6.10 The Human Side of Minimal Area Surfaces 271
7 The Modern Age Begins 279
7.1 The Fermat/Steiner Problem 279
7.2 Digging the Optimal Trench, Paving the Shortest Mail Route, and Least-Cost Paths through Directed Graphs 286
7.3 The Traveling Salesman Problem 293
7.4 Minimizing with Inequalities (Linear Programming) 295
7.5 Minimizing by Working Backwards (Dynamic Programming) 312
App. A The AM-GM Inequality 331
App. B The AM-QM Inequality, and Jensen's Inequality 334
App. C "The Sagacity of the Bees" 342
App. D Every Convex Figure Has a Perimeter Bisector 345
App. E The Gravitational Free-Fall Descent Time along a Circle 347
App. F The Area Enclosed by a Closed Curve 352
App. G Beltrami's Identity 359
App. H The Last Word on the Lost Fisherman Problem 361
Acknowledgments 365
Index 367
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Recipe

"This is a delightful account of how the concepts of maxima, minima, and differentiation evolved with time. The level of mathematical sophistication is neither abstract nor superficial and it should appeal to a wide audience."—Ali H. Sayed, University of California, Los Angeles

"When Least Is Best is an illustrative historical walk through optimization problems as solved by mathematicians and scientists. Although many of us associate solving optimization with calculus, Paul J. Nahin shows here that many key problems were posed and solved long before calculus was developed."—Mary Ann B. Freeman, Math Team Development Manager, Mathworks

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 24, 2004

    Behold the power of the AM-GM Inequality

    Nahin shows how to solve a selection of typical Max-Min problems from Calculus using ordinary algebra, many by using the Arithmetic Mean-Geometric Mean Inequality in creative and ingenious ways. On the way, he gives insights into the history of mathematics. Among them: The 'war' between Descartes and Fermat, and how the ancients were able to solve many max-min problems without calculus. He includes some remarkably beautiful and insightful derivations of proofs, and solutions to problems like Fagnano's on the inscribed triangle of minimum perimeter. I found myself saying 'This is neat stuff' over and over again as I read this gem.

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