Men of Mathematics - E. T. Bell

This is a biography of a number of mathematicians, and don't worry, there are a few women included, too. Sadly, not a huge number. I've had this for well over ten years, as my mother got it for me when she found it in a second-hand book shop, but I never got around to reading it before. After re-reading 'Mathematics: The New Golden Age', I decided to embark on this. And... it's pretty good in its own strange way. Reading about the lives of major mathematicians is fairly interesting (although some of them start to blur after the first couple of dozen) and pretty inspiring. What is better, though, is the insight into whole areas of mathematics which have fallen out of favour (and sometimes returning), thus giving an insight into the development of the subject in a way that you don't otherwise get.

The style is somewhat eclectic - I believe it is one of the recommended books for pre-Tripos reading at Cambridge, with a proviso to the effect that it is a little... eccentric. As well as the author's viewpoint, there is also the historical document aspect. I believe the book was written in the thirties, so the last entry is for Cantor, and it says quite a bit that it is his work that is viewed as shaking the foundations of mathematics (with perhaps a quick acknowledgement to Russell). Goedel, whose results, relatively speaking, go off the Richter scale, isn't mentioned. It's all rather quaint and charming.

Posted 2007-08-02.