Sunday, January 20, 2013

Mathematics and the Loss of Certainty by Morris Kline (science)

When setting out the goal of reading and reviewing 52 books this year, I had to deal with the problem of bad books. I'm no longer one for killer reviews, reviews in which a book is eviscerated for the entertainment of those reading the reviews. Conversely, it's not fair to simply say "this book is bad" without saying why. So please, bear with me as I attempt to describe this most disappointing book without devolving into rant. Please do give me feedback, as I've recent encountered another book which is likely to get a bad review.

Morris Kline's Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty is a failure. It attempts to describe how the belief that mathematics and mathematical reasoning were complete and correct fell apart and why. Instead it is a disorganized history of mathematics, geometry, and proof across the ages. Kline never adequately describes the nature of geometric proof, nor the alternate geometries which shattered it. He dwells to no particular purpose on 1,500 years of irrelevancy during which algebra et. al. were developed and used without proof and without quest for proof. When he reached the 18th through 20th centuries, he jumps backwards and forwards discussing the changed feeling about proof and provability of mathematics, but leaves the causes of those changes for later chapters. In short, what should have been a fascinating history of mathematics and treatise about the nature of mathematical proof is a rambling mess. He focuses on nits, glides over critical but admittedly difficult items, and winds up leaving even this educated reader frustrated and uniformed.

In summary: not recommended.

1 comment:

Don Neill said...

Thanks for suffering through that one so we don't have to. Ordinarily, a book I would like to read. Guess I'll cross it off the old list.