Why Beauty is Truth: The History of Symmetry

31st August 2007 at 01:00
Why Beauty is Truth: The History of Symmetry. By Ian Stewart. Basic Books pound;15.99

The enigmatic title of this book (derived from Keats) is at the same time both inflated and understated. As Stewart says: "Beauty is more significant than truth. Many points of view yield positive descriptions of nature, but some provide more insight than others."

It chronicles, in Stewart's typically enlightening manner, the development of concepts of symmetry from Babylonian mathematics through to string theory 3,000 years later.

But it does far more than that, exhibiting a cornucopia of striking examples of the frequent scientific truth of this fundamental aesthetic principle, in the setting of the lives of the people who made the key discoveries.

Mathematicians, like anyone else, are a product of their culture, as well as forgers of extensions to it and the development of maths.

Stewart demonstrates how a basic idea of a symmetry (as a transformation that preserves core structures), much extended and embellished, is fundamental to today's scientific understanding of the universe and its origin.

But the motivation for, and understanding of, the associated concepts derives from mathematics itself: its role in physics emerged much later. Extraordinarily useful ideas emerge time and time again from purely abstract considerations something the physicist Eugene Wigner referred to as "the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences", and that is a riveting and repeated aspect of the story.

Stewart is a highly gifted communicator, able not only to explain the motivation of mathematicians down the centuries but to elucidate the resulting mathematics with both clarity and style.

The whole is leavened by his inimitable understated wit ("the symbol for a square root is very pretty") and clarity ("a term is not actually missing, it just has a coefficient 0") as he draws you into the minds of pathfinders ("you wonder why you ever expected the commutative law to hold in any case, and start thinking it a minor miracle that it holds for the complex numbers"), cutting through the clutter of the often slow and painful development of new ideas with a conviction which makes this book accessible and motivating to anyone with a serious interest in maths.

I resorted to hiding it from other members of the family until I'd finished and am confident that those on the "waiting list" will not be disappointed. Inspirational Jennie Golding is head of maths at Woodroffe School in Lyme Regis, and an AST in Dorset.

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