Tuesday, October 18, 2005


I finished reading a short book by David Berlinski the other day, A Short History of Mathematics, which I'd picked up on impulse a couple weeks ago at the bookstore (a rare occurence of my actually *buying* something in a bookstore, rather than browsing, going home, and ordering from Amazon). I was a math major way back when and still find all that abstruse material fascinating, especially now that such material doesn't come up very often in the course of my mundane (or fantastic) life.

Berlinski is quite a character, it turns out, especially so for someone best-known for writing mathematical tomes (earlier, A Tour of the Calculus and The Advent of the Algorithm). You can tell first by his haphazardly ornate prose style, in which straightforward accounts of people or concepts are swirled together with extravagant rhetoric and gratuitous, occasionally cranky metaphors. A review on Amazon quotes one line: "Gauss was able to turn down his tablet at once, the correct answer inscribed on slate, even as the dutiful donkeys in the room, chubby farm children of no intellectual distinction, scratched away industriously." And here's another from page 174:

An effective calculation is any calculation that could be undertaken, Turing argued, by an exceptionally simple imaginary machine, or even a human computer, someone who has, like a clerk in the department of motor vehicles or a college dean, been stripped of all cognitive powers and can as a result execute only a few primitive acts.

And two pages later: "The algorithm is the second of two great ideas in Western science; the first is the calculus. I have said this before, but I am so pleased with the thought that I am eager to say it again."

Googling and Amazoning Berlinksi turned up very mixed reactions to his writing, as well as arrogant poses from the author (along the lines of, "that's how I write, deal with it"), and most bemusingly, proudly displayed credentials from none other than the Discovery Institute, one of the forces promoting Intelligent Design. His Wikipedia entry links to a lengthy 1997 Firing Line TV debate about evolution and creation in which he worries over gaps and pesters an opponent about how many (50,000? 100,000?) morphological changes are required to take one kind of animal to another. His points come across as silly and cantankerous; a lesson about how experts in one field can't necessarily be trusted in others.

So that's what I learned about David Berlinski, and pass on to the six of you who read this blog. I think next time I want to refresh myself reading about math, I'll pick up one of those Rudy Ruckers I've never gotten to.
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Mark R. Kelly

The opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of Mark R. Kelly, and do not reflect the editorial position of Locus Magazine.
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