Sunday, November 4, 2007

Prime Obsessed in spite of myself

"I'm sorry to say that the subject I most disliked was mathematics. I have thought about it. I think the reason was that mathematics leaves no room for argument. If you made a mistake, that was all there was to it." --
Malcolm X

If you had told me anytime before, say ...... 8 p.m. on Saturday, that I would be purchasing a book about math and reading it for enjoyment, I simply would have stared at you. One of my proudest grades in undergrad is the C that I got in Math 110. I clawed and fought and scratched my way to that grade, more so than any A+ I have received in my life. I would have been speechless at the thought of reading about math ever again. But that was before I picked up Prime Obsession, by John Derbyshire. You only have to peruse The Corner to know that Derbyshire is not what you would call conventional (having a police-style mug shot of himself on his home page might give it away as well), but this book is not conventional either.

The book is entirely about the Reimann Hypothesis, the Moby Dick to many mathematicians' Ahab. At its core, RH is about the distribution of prime numbers. We know that primes exist, but is there any predictable reason to their ordering? Is there a pattern we can exploit to find primes whose digits number in the millions?

That explanation is the math-for-extreme-dummies explanation. Derbyshire alternates between the history of RH -- including the conditions and people that led to Bernhard Reimann off-handedly postulating a guess at a conference and the nearly 150 years that have followed as men and women have tried to either prove or disprove the hypothesis -- and the math involved. Derbyshire does his best to make the math as accessible as possible without sacrificing the math entirely (at least that is what people smarter than me say). Derbyshire said that he intends the book for someone who has taken some college math. As a proud college graduate, I can say that the math goes soaring over my head at speeds that would make Chuck Yeager lose his lunch. It's not enough to be acquainted with math to get this book. You and math can't just be co-workers who nod to each other in the hallway. Math cannot just be a long-lost friend from high school that you reunite with. You and math gotta be close. Fist-bumping, hug it out, spend every weekend together close.

Normally, that would be enough to make me drop this book and never pick it up again. I do most of my reading in the hour before I go to bed, so I like books that are interesting, but not too taxing. Prime Obsession requires every ounce of mental energy that I have and then some. But Derbyshire succeeds in spite of himself. The history parts of the book are very enjoyable and he keeps out as much math as possible. His history is that of people; the people that gave rise to Reimann, Reimann himself and the people whom Reimann has confounded since. I doubt I will ever enjoy math, but I think I would enjoy having Derbyshire for a mathematics professor. He dumbs down the math without being condescending; he finds the right mixture of being understanding and challenging. I give up on books easily; if you don't have me by page 50, you can expect to sit on my shelf for a long time before finding a new home at Goodwill. Despite everything that this book has going against it (subject matter that is often incomprehensible, mentally exhausing to read, half the book is just math), I intuitively know that this is a special book and I keep fighting my way through it. I will finish it, but I doubt I will ever fully understand it. But if you want something different to read, definitely give it a look.

And here is a music bit where the name of the band and the name of the song fit the post:

Mute Math: Peculiar People

To purchase Mute Math's latest album, go here.