By Ian Stewart
Basic Books, $26.99, 342 pages
For the less mathematically inclined, there’s no greater stumbling block to understanding than the equation. Equations are sentences in a foreign language, barely penetrable and somewhat disheartening to encounter. But equations are valuable tools, serving as keys to unlock scientific mysteries and quantify a strange and often baffling universe.
Thankfully, Ian Stewart has penned a book for both sides of the divide with In Pursuit of the Unknown, ably bridging the gap between those daunted and undaunted by the language of equations. From his first paragraphs explaining how the lowly equal sign came to be, Stewart explores the origins of 17 equations that have heralded changes great and small.
From how Pythagoras helped with land surveying to how Einstein’s theory of relativity lead to GPS navigation, from how chaos theory informs space exploration to how a misused equation partly contributed to the current economic crisis, Stewart tackles both the math behind them and the incredible discoveries that have resulted. It’s a fascinatingly grounded glimpse into how big ideas and innovations emerge from seemingly small leaps in calculated logic.
By making some tough concepts truly accessible, In Pursuit of the Unknown will hopefully open a few more minds to possibility.
Reviewed by Glenn Dallas