Home » London Book Review - Non Fiction » Book Review – Mathematics : How it Shaped Our World by David Rooney (Scala Arts and Heritage Publishers Ltd)

Book Review – Mathematics : How it Shaped Our World by David Rooney (Scala Arts and Heritage Publishers Ltd)

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Mathematics is often accused of being remote from everyday life, however this book and  the Science Museum’s landmark new Mathematics: The Winton Gallery due to open in December 2016 provide evidence that mathematical work underpins some of our most fundamental human concerns.

Mathematics : How it Shaped Our World by David Rooney explores the collections of the Science Museum to understand how 400 years of mathematical practice have shaped  human activities including war, peace, money and trade.

The author considers that Mathematics is often too rigidly defined around theorems and practice which obscures the way that mathematical practice is fundamental in our everyday life. The author quotes historian Stephen Johnson who considers that recent specialisations in Mathematics  is at odds with the Renaissance concept of the discipline, ‘Mathematics then incorporated not only elements that we would now recognise as mathematics but a host of other activities and arts that today are seen belonging to science and technology’.

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The book adopts this wider concept in the first few chapters when exploring Trade and Travel, War and Peace, Money, Life and Death, Form and Beauty, Maps and Models.

Underlying many of these subjects is the idea of measurement, empires have been born and lost on the back of trade and central to many empires has been the standardisation of weights, volume and length. In the 17th,18th and 19th centuries, the increasing importance of international maritime trade depended on the ability to have accurate navigation and map making of new lands. Longitude in particular was a considerable problem which led to considerable loss of ships and lives.

Colonial conquest often led to conflict and it is often said that war provides many elements that favours innovation. The chapter on War and Peace illustrates how the technologies of war in the 20th century led to the development of computing and electronics.

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Money is central to all economies and mathematics is fundamental to the smooth running of many aspects of those economies. The chapter on Money looks at the tools of mathematics including the abacus, Samuel Morland’s calculating machine from the 17th century and the pocket calculator. However it was not just the tools but the mathematical models that have become central to understanding the economics of the 20th and 21st centuries.

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If you think Mathematics is not a matter of life and death, chapter four provides plenty of evidence that it has become central to the understanding of medical and insurance statistics. In the 19th century in particular, many reformers used statistics to expose many social problems. Whilst most of these reforms provided social benefits, the work of Francis Galton and the ‘eugenics’ movement exposed more disturbing elements of social engineering.

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Few would describe Mathematics ‘ beautiful’, however the chapter on Form and Beauty explores how the use of geometrical rules of proportion reveals the beauty of nature and have been a useful tool for designing buildings. Perspective has also played a major role in the history of art and the design of gardens, the major formal gardens of the 17th and 18th centuries were designed to express harmony with nature using mathematical symmetry.

The chapter on Maps and Models illustrates that human beings for thousands of years have attempted to map the heavens and the earth. Greek mathematician Euclid’s use of geometry was adopted by many and inspired a number of technological advances to refine the measurement of space and time. The power of computers have revolutionised the ability to apply mathematics to particular problems and develop models to provide solutions.

A series of essays at the end of the book by Jim Bennett, Patricia Fara, June Barrow –Brown, Dame Celia Hoyles and Helen Wilson attempt to consider the past of mathematics and look how the discipline may develop in the 21st century. Hoyles and Wilson in particular, point out that mathematics is a dynamic, ever-changing discipline that is at the forefront of the digital world.

This fascinating and entertaining book challenges a number of preconceptions of the nature of mathematics. Rather than being confined to the abstract margins of everyday life, the author places mathematics at the centre of the modern world. The large number of attractive illustrations and photographs in the book provide visual evidence that mathematics have been central to many technological advances which have transformed human society. It is difficult to argue with the author who suggests the role of mathematics and mathematicians should be celebrated in a wider cultural sense and not marginalised by a rigid definition.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

For more information or to buy a copy, visit the Science Museum website here

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