Author: Eric Temple Bell
Part of the problem, I think, is that I'd never gotten caught up in the history of math the way I had with music, for instance. In kindergarten, I had a wonderful music teacher who introduced us to all of the great composers. While I certainly enjoyed their work, I also saw them as characters in a captivating story. I never got that with Pythagoras, Euclid or Galileo. Math isn't really taught that way. I enjoyed fiddling with numbers but never got caught up in the history behind them. That is why I picked up this book, The Magic of Numbers by Eric Temple Bell.
So, that was 25 years ago. I tried reading it that summer before sophomore year but didn't get too far. The book has survived on my shelves through several moves and book purges. Now, I've finally read it.
The book was interesting, though not everything I wanted it to be when I was pondering my future as a college sophomore. Pythagoras is the star, though Plato has a strong supporting role. While most of the book is devoted to ancient Greece, the historical path runs all the way to the 1930s. The intertwining of mathematics and philosophy has been a vital thread for both disciplines so I suppose it shouldn't be surprising to see significant material devoted to Aristotle, Bacon and Kant in addition to Copernicus, Newton, Lobachevsky and Einstein. There is some mention of the important work in the Arab world, though more would have been historically appropriate.
Most of the numero-philosophy discussion was over my head though some of it was fun. I learned about harmonic means for the first time. You take your numbers, find their reciprocals, average their reciprocals, then reciprocate the average: 2 and 4; 1/2 + 1/4 is 3/4; half of that is 3/8; reciprocal is 8/3. I love stuff like that.
My most meaningful connection was the discussion of the five regular polyhedra - also known as the Platonic solids - as discovered by the ancient Greeks. These are the only convex, three-dimensional objects in Euclidean space that are comprised entirely of regular polygons: tetrahedron, cube, octahedron, dodecahedron and icosohedron. Those of you have devoted significant portions of your life to Dungeons & Dragons know them better as the 4-sided, 6-sided, 8-sided, 12-sided and 20-sided dice. Those dice were an important part of my childhood and while I always thought they were neat, I never before realized they were the only shapes that were composed of regular polygons.
|My own dice, which I've had for closer to 35 years|
|via Dan Elton|
So, 25 years later, I'm still glad I eventually majored in music. Math might have been more profitable but music has been more fun.