April 12, 2012

Book: The Equation that Couldn’t Be Solved By Mario Livio

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 9:24 am

In fact, the full title of the book is ‘The Equation that couldn’t be Solved:  How Mathematical Genius Discovered the Language of Symmetry’. The title is so long that I cannot even tweet the title, probably! The American nonfiction market, I understand, requires a secondary title by convention and the publishers generally ask the author to create one, if the author does not already have this in mind. British publishers, on the other hand, are OK with just a single title.

It is definitely a geek book! If you are not interested in science, do not even open the book! But, if you are interested in science, and do not understand the jargon or do not have the mathematics background to understand complex work, it does not matter, you will be quite OK with this book. This book is all about explaining the breakthrough advances in science in plain  language. You can follow along the discussion pretty easily and only in one or two places it gets hairy enough to cause some confusion. If that happens to you, simply skip to the start of the next chapter and you can still follow the story without missing anything much. The real mathematics of it is relegated to the Appendix in most cases, and again, you can skip these as well with no loss of continuity whatsoever.

The story is fascinating. It tracks the advances in “everything” with the central concept of symmetry. They describe the solution to equations (Of course! Look at the title.) starting from simple and going all the way via Quadratic, Cubic to Quintic. It tracks the life stories of the great minds who solved these equations and how Group Theory evolved from these efforts. It goes on to talk about the Theory of Relativity, the General Theory of Relativity and the current hunt for the ‘Universal Theory’. I love the fact that some of the concepts that I failed to understand in Stephen Hawkins’ book for the laymen was clearer when Mario explained it in a different way (including the explanation on string theory).

To repeat, it gets very technical in a couple of areas but these can be safely skipped, as long as you do not skip anything  to do with technology! (You have to skip the entire book then!) Some of the discussions are astounding, and interesting. Galios and Abel’s life stories are interesting in their own right, as are the insights Einstein got that led him to the theory of Relativity.

A good book to read, or to add to your collection of geek books.

I would give it a 7/10 only because it takes on too wide a subject and so you are left wondering about the various subjects it flitted through, and also because it got toooo technical in parts, which should have been avoided in a book that purports to address the lay reader. Otherwise it would have got a higher rating.

— Krishna


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