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The Transformation of Mathematics in the Early Mediterranean World: From Problems to Equations
Publisher: Cambridge University Press (2004)
Details: 198 pages, Hardcover
Series: Cambridge Classical Studies
Topics: History of Mathematics
MAA Review[Reviewed by Fernando Q. Gouvêa, on 05/01/2005]
The current consensus among historians of Ancient mathematics is that one should make a sharp distinction between the Greek "tradition of geometric problems" and our modern way of thinking about such problems, namely, algebra. Tempting as it is to simply translate Greek problems into quadratic and cubic equations, such translation, scholars tell us, fundamentally mischaracterizes what the Greeks were actually doing. The exact nature of the differences are still being discussed, but most have come to agree that the fact of the difference is undeniable.
(Of course, not all scholars are convinced, and the new consensus has certainly not been noticed by a great many authors of popular books on the history of mathematics. But the description given above is nevertheless accurate: the vast majority of scholars would agree.)
Given that consensus, a crucial question poses itself: how did we get from there to here? Scholars have not always answered that question very well. For example, readers of Jacob Klein's Greek Mathematical Thought and the Origin of Algebra might well get the impression that the new way of thinking sprung, fully grown and ready for battle, from the mind of François Viète.
As Reviel Netz points out in the introduction to The Transformation of Mathematics in the Early Mediterranean World, without an answer to this question we do not yet have a history; rather, we simply have two ahistorical monolyths -- Greek and modern -- that remain unrelated. In order to begin to construct such a history, Netz examines one particular problem from Archimedes' "The Sphere and the Cylinder," looking first at the solutions given by Archimedes, Diocles, and Dionysodorus, then at the writing of Eutocius in Late Antiquity, and finally at Omar Khayyam's 10th century analysis of the problem. The result is engaging, provocative, and definitely worth reading and thinking about. Anyone who wants to know what current scholarship on Greek mathematics could do much worse than to begin with this book.
Fernando Q. Gouvêa is Professor of Mathematics at Colby College in Waterville, ME.