Eli Maor presents “e: The Story of a Number” as a social history of a mathematical concept, delving into the lives of mathematicians who contributed to the discovery and exploration of the number e, from Leibniz and Newton’s famous rivalry to the Bernoulli family tree. The historical parts of the book are fascinating, but the mathematical explanations are at best dry, and at worst utterly confusing. The book claims to be for “readers with only a modest background in mathematics,” but actually seems to assume that the reader is familiar with rather advanced geometry, calculus, and number theory.
In spite of the fact that, frankly, I had to wade through this book and ended up skimming whole pages with glazed eyes, Maor has done a nice job unfolding the personalities of some noteworthy mathematicians and scientists, right down to an imaginary conversation about music theory between Johann Bernoulli and Johann Bach (who were contemporaries, but never met). He’s also examined in exhaustive detail the many ways in which the number e is awesome.
e, of course, is about the coolest number ever, which is why I was so excited to read this book in the first place. e is a transcendental number, like pi, and is equal to 2.71828…. or 2 + 1/2! + 1/3! + 1/4! + … . The function y = e^x is the only function that is equal to its own derivative, and is the basis of the logarithmic curve and the logarithmic spiral. e is used in applications ranging from finances to physics to art, and is an important part of our modern understanding of calculus. Just trust me, it’s a gorgeous number. The shapes of natural structures like the nautilus shell are based on e, too.
In short, if you fancy math at all and have at least a little grounding in calculus and number theory, you’ll probably be blown away by all of the complexities of e, and will enjoy this book once you manage to wade through the equations. It’s also good for history fans interested in the development of calculus and in the lives of the mathematical giants who were crucial in the study of e.
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