The Cult of Pythagoras: Math and Myths

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9780822944188: The Cult of Pythagoras: Math and Myths
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In this follow-up to his popular Science Secrets, Alberto A. Martínez discusses various popular myths from the history of mathematics: that Pythagoras proved the hypotenuse theorem, that Archimedes figured out how to test the purity of a gold crown while he was in a bathtub, that the Golden Ratio is in nature and ancient architecture, that the young Galois created group theory the night before the pistol duel that killed him, and more. Some stories are partly true, others are entirely false, but all show the power of invention in history. Pythagoras emerges as a symbol of the urge to conjecture and “fill in the gaps” of history. He has been credited with fundamental discoveries in mathematics and the sciences, yet there is nearly no evidence that he really contributed anything to such fields at all. This book asks: how does history change when we subtract the many small exaggerations and interpolations that writers have added for over two thousand years?

The Cult of Pythagoras is also about invention in a positive sense. Most people view mathematical breakthroughs as “discoveries” rather than invention or creativity, believing that mathematics describes a realm of eternal ideas. But mathematicians have disagreed about what is possible and impossible, about what counts as a proof, and even about the results of certain operations. Was there ever invention in the history of concepts such as zero, negative numbers, imaginary numbers, quaternions, infinity, and infinitesimals?

Martínez inspects a wealth of primary sources, in several languages, over a span of many centuries. By exploring disagreements and ambiguities in the history of the elements of mathematics, The Cult of Pythagoras dispels myths that obscure the actual origins of mathematical concepts. Martínez argues that an accurate history that analyzes myths reveals neglected aspects of mathematics that can encourage creativity in students and mathematicians.

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About the Author:

Alberto A. Martínez is associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Science Secrets: The Truth about Darwin’s Finches, Einstein’s Wife, and Other Myths, Kinematics: The Lost Origins of Einstein's Relativity, and Negative Math: How Mathematical Rules Can Be Positively Bent.

Review:

"a historically accurate discussion of the many great stories in mathematics. ... an interesting discussion of some of the mysteries of mathematics. ...an excellent supplement for a course on mathematics for teachers. ...As an algebraist I found this discussion extremely interesting, but what I liked most was that it was completely accessible to anyone. ... this book would be great for any undergraduate student. ...I really enjoyed this book and think it would be a worthwhile read for anyone."― Mathematical Association of America, MathDL

"his scholarship is admirable. Every subject needs its history told in a careful and useful manner, and Martínez clearly succeeds in this endeavor. This book is a good addition to all libraries where seekers of the truth might find some satisfaction."― Choice

"Martinez documents how historical errors begin and propagate. He demonstrates how advances in geometry, algebra, and calculus were made by those willing to question the rules that govern mathematical operations. ...Beyond authenticating or disproving myths, Martinez takes readers into the philosophical questions behind them. ...an engaging study for those interested in the history and pedagogy of science."― Library Journal

"After conducting painstakingly detailed primary source research and re-translating ancient sources, Martinez finds that proof is scarce. He asserts that although speculative myths appear to be true and satisfy the human quest for a juicy story, truth is ultimately more interesting than superstition and fiction. He encourages readers to embrace skepticism."― Heinz History Center / Smithsonian

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9780822962700: The Cult of Pythagoras: Math and Myths

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ISBN 10:  0822962705 ISBN 13:  9780822962700
Publisher: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013
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