Tuesday, 31 August 2010

The Music Of The Primes

A two, a three, a two, three, five, seven...

It's how Reimann's band's drummer would have counted in....

No?  Oh come on, that was funny, I spent ages on that.  No?  Really?  Oh well.

Rest assured, Marcus du Sautoy's The Music Of The Primes is far more entertaining than my geeky half-jokes.  Don't get me wrong, there are geek-jokes galore in there, mostly from original sources such as the angry young man that is Galoise, or Gödel's startled pigeon, and that's the great strength of this popular mathematics book, the life it breathes into the world of mathematics.

Not only mathematics, but a very specific area of it, prime numbers.

Prime numbers seem innocuous at first glance, a little mathematical oddity that everybody learns about at primary school.  du Sautoy throws us straight in at the deep end with Reimann and his jottings where he, in passing, has an idea about the frequency of prime numbers.  This idea is one of the big ones...in fact, with the recent fall of Fermat's Last Theorem (see the excellent book with the same title by Simon Singh) and the PoincarĂ© Conjecture, the Reimann Hypothesis is probably the biggest, baddest, longest standing problem in mathematics.  There's still a million dollar bounty out there, if you fancy your chances.

I wouldn't though, it's driven at least one person to madness, and taken a few to the borders.  It's the stuff that techno-thriller spy movies are made of (literally, see Sneakers) and has been implicated in at least one fatal duel and one national revolution.  It's been the subject of, and I kid you not, two Nobel Prize level practical jokes.  If the Reimann Hypothesis is a film character it's dangerously close to being Sherlock Holmes crossed with James Bond.

That's just my reading of the vivid world that du Sautoy paints, the human backdrop to a mathematical enigma that has floated around teasing humanity for over a hundred and fifty years, and counting.  Your mileage may vary, your cultural reference points may differ, but you'll still be left with a gloriously alive vision of the whole mathematically sordid affair.

The Music Of The Primes
Marcus du Sautoy
Harper Collins
ISBN: 9781841155807