‘Mathematics: How it Shaped our World’ by David Rooney

 

In December 2016, I attended the opening at London’s Science Museum of ‘Mathematics: the Winton Gallery’, an inspirational exhibition which seeks to highlight how mathematics has played a central role in human development throughout history. Now the same brains behind the gallery have launched a new book, which brings this wonderful story into the home.

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This beautiful new book, written by David Rooney, curator in the technologies and engineering group at the science museum and lead curator of the Winton Gallery, explores how mathematics has influenced the world throughout the last 400 years.

The fascinating yet misunderstood field of mathematics, though considered by many to be a rather forbidding and remote subject, is not just present within university and financial institutions, but has importance within all of our daily lives. The Winton Gallery was created as an accessible and fun avenue into understanding mathematics in a bid to change the public’s relationship with mathematics and its history.

‘Mathematics: How it Shaped our World’ by David Rooney supports this quest for anyone unable to visit the Science Museum or for those simply wanting to continue the journey at home. Beautifully illustrated by full-colour photography throughout, this attractive publication would make an excellent addition to any coffee table or bookshelf, whether for casual perusing or an all-out maths fest.

Mathematics is as old as time itself, but with any book there needs to be a beginning. This one emerges on board the merchant ships of the early 18th century with the invention of overseas trade. Mathematics’ relationship with trade is much more complex and far-reaching than the changing hands of currencies. At the heart of trade is measurement: it is in the designing and construction of ships; in the navigation and the building of trade networks; in the buying and selling of goods, and even in the forming of codes for transmitting secret information. As Rooney points out, whole empires have been built and fortunes made and lost off the back of world trade – a fact that resonates just as much now, with the cheap outsourcing of production overseas, as it did 400 years ago.

From trade and travel we move on to war and the many technological advances that mathematical innovation has awarded to the fight for peace throughout history, from the ‘differential analyser’ of the Second World War, to the invention of radar and subsequent rise of ‘operational research’ – a form of mathematical decision making – within military practice. With each chapter in the book Rooney introduces a new concept or sector which has been affected in untold ways by the power of mathematics – exploring economics, weather patterns, surveillance systems, computing, medicine, risk analysis, health and beauty and the very nature of life and death itself.

The book is rounded off nicely by a series of short essays from key figures in the study of mathematics, which look at, among other things, the position of women within mathematical history, with particular attention to key female figures such as Émilie du Châtelet and Mary Sommerville and the ever-changing nature of the mathematics landscape in the present day.

There is no question of the importance of mathematics in the minds of most people. Those who shy away from the simplest of calculations and cringe every time it comes to splitting a bill at a restaurant will know the perils of lacking basic mathematics skills, but – as Rooney demonstrates – this is really just the beginning. Where some introductory or historical texts seek merely to inform, this one strives to engage intellectual thought and questioning, positioning it firmly above the rest. Whether you are a mathematician by trade, a closet maths fanatic or a self-proclaimed sum-dodger, this book is sure to give you food for thought.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine

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