Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Fermat's Last Theorem: Unlocking the Secret of an Ancient Mathematical Problem

Fermat’s Last Theorem: Unlocking the Secret of an Ancient Mathematical Problem – Amir Aczel

In Fermat’s prolific life as a mathematician, he produced many theories and theorems, the most puzzling of which came to be known as “Fermat’s Last Theorem” due to the longevity of the mystery. In a margin, Fermat wrote that an+bn=cn cannot be true for any value of “n” greater than 2 (those are supposed to be exponents), but because of the space of the margin, he could not write the proof that supported this statement. Aczel traces the history of Fermat’s Last Theorem throughout the whole history of mathematics, outlining the developments in math that occurred before he wrote his theorem, and how it evolved after his death until the theorem was finally proved to be true almost 350 years after Fermat first wrote it. With brief biographies about each of the great mathematicians who helped expand the word of math and descriptions about how their theories contributed to the understanding of Fermat’s last theorem, Aczel outlines the various circumstances that lead to this tremendous achievement.

“Fermat’s Last Theorem” is certainly an intriguing story because it was a puzzle left unsolved for centuries despite relentless pursuit by mathematicians in every generation following Fermat. Aczel effectively hooks the reader at the beginning of the book by describing the breathless and expectant atmosphere when Fermat’s Last Theorem was finally proven, then proceeds to outline the mathematical history that made it possible. The evolution of math itself is a surprisingly compelling story the way Aczel tells it. Notable figures in the history of math were not only brilliant and revolutionary in their contributions to the field, but often lead personal lives that were as intriguing as their theories. However, the descriptions of the mathematical theories needed to solve Fermat’s Last Equation were not as compelling. Rather, they seemed unfortunately reminiscent of stereotypical math that confuses more than it clarifies. Although Aczel is adept at telling the history of math, his explanations of math processes left something to be desired.

As I tried to explain this book to various people, it invariably came to some statement about how “it’s really interesting, but I won’t remember any of it.” Someone responded by saying that he “doesn’t explain math for the everyday idiot,” and unfortunately, I agree with this sentiment. The history of math was surprisingly interesting, but I couldn’t tell you anything about Fermat’s Last Theorem except that it was finally proven to be true. I was stuck for a few minutes trying to discern the difference between integers, numerals, and numbers, and when it finally came back to numbers, there were even more to consider: rational, irrational, ideal, and so many more. Aczel seems to be making a lot of assumptions about the people reading this book. While the history is interesting, the math is not. Perhaps a different book would more adequately explain it.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Moving Beyond Words

Moving Beyond Words – Gloria Steinem

Through a collection of six essays that could each be their own book if they had a little more room to expand, Gloria Steinem addresses some of the most essential definitions and assumptions of what it means to be both a woman and a feminist. Steinem starts with a gender-bending reconception of Freud’s life and theories (“What if Freud were Phyllis”), which is followed by an in-depth interview with the world’s strongest woman, finding femininity and personal strength in the world of bodybuilders. She addresses a blistering essay toward the advertising industry for buying out women’s magazines and filling them consumables and editorials rather than pressing news and important products, and also discusses class differences within feminism and the importance of revaluing women’s economic contributions. She ends the book with an essay on aging, coming to the conclusion that the most radical act of rebellion is to accurately portray reality. Each of these essays is united by a theme of redefining empowerment, reclaiming women’s value, and embracing change in the face of difficulty and uncertainty.

Steinem is an honest, thought-provoking, and inspiring writer. Her essays have a casual and relatable tone which gives her writing an intimate and genuine feel, but she also conveys information from a perspective of understandable anger that borders on rage without ever coming across too strong. She has no presumption other than the belief that all people deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. While she writes to the universal experience of woman, she also constantly remembers the differences of class, race, culture, and other identity categories. The content of her essays varies as much as her own experience, and she somehow finds a way to make even census categories and paying taxes infinitely more interesting than they sound. With wit, insight, and respect, Steinem draws attention to basic, daily rituals and interactions that undermine the inherent dignity of an entire group of people and offers her own perspective, based on her own experience, on how to live in a way that counteracts these effects. Steinem writes persuasive and logical arguments that provoke both thoughtful and emotional responses.

Reading Gloria Steinem was fabulous for a couple reasons. I have never read anything by her before – or if I have, it has been too long for me to remember – and her essays were a nice reminder of why I believe in the possibility of change. She draws attention to so many things that I either take for granted or don’t notice at all, and it is important to be redirected to notice the ways in which injustice persists. She speaks to and for women with a humble understanding that she could never accurately convey or capture the experience of each individual, making her writing all the more relatable. Certain essays were more compelling than others, but if Steinem’s writing can make me interested in economics, then she is a pretty amazing author. All of these essays are well worth the read.