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Why Beauty Is Truth: A History of Symmetry

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At the heart of relativity theory, quantum mechanics, string theory, and much of modern cosmology lies one concept: symmetry. In Why Beauty Is Truth, world-famous mathematician Ian Stewart narrates the history of the emergence of this remarkable area of study. Stewart introduces us to such characters as the Renaissance Italian genius, rogue, scholar, and gambler Girolamo C At the heart of relativity theory, quantum mechanics, string theory, and much of modern cosmology lies one concept: symmetry. In Why Beauty Is Truth, world-famous mathematician Ian Stewart narrates the history of the emergence of this remarkable area of study. Stewart introduces us to such characters as the Renaissance Italian genius, rogue, scholar, and gambler Girolamo Cardano, who stole the modern method of solving cubic equations and published it in the first important book on algebra, and the young revolutionary Evariste Galois, who refashioned the whole of mathematics and founded the field of group theory only to die in a pointless duel over a woman before his work was published. Stewart also explores the strange numerology of real mathematics, in which particular numbers have unique and unpredictable properties related to symmetry. He shows how Wilhelm Killing discovered “Lie groups” with 14, 52, 78, 133, and 248 dimensions-groups whose very existence is a profound puzzle. Finally, Stewart describes the world beyond superstrings: the “octonionic” symmetries that may explain the very existence of the universe.


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At the heart of relativity theory, quantum mechanics, string theory, and much of modern cosmology lies one concept: symmetry. In Why Beauty Is Truth, world-famous mathematician Ian Stewart narrates the history of the emergence of this remarkable area of study. Stewart introduces us to such characters as the Renaissance Italian genius, rogue, scholar, and gambler Girolamo C At the heart of relativity theory, quantum mechanics, string theory, and much of modern cosmology lies one concept: symmetry. In Why Beauty Is Truth, world-famous mathematician Ian Stewart narrates the history of the emergence of this remarkable area of study. Stewart introduces us to such characters as the Renaissance Italian genius, rogue, scholar, and gambler Girolamo Cardano, who stole the modern method of solving cubic equations and published it in the first important book on algebra, and the young revolutionary Evariste Galois, who refashioned the whole of mathematics and founded the field of group theory only to die in a pointless duel over a woman before his work was published. Stewart also explores the strange numerology of real mathematics, in which particular numbers have unique and unpredictable properties related to symmetry. He shows how Wilhelm Killing discovered “Lie groups” with 14, 52, 78, 133, and 248 dimensions-groups whose very existence is a profound puzzle. Finally, Stewart describes the world beyond superstrings: the “octonionic” symmetries that may explain the very existence of the universe.

30 review for Why Beauty Is Truth: A History of Symmetry

  1. 5 out of 5

    Koen Crolla

    As advertised, Why Beauty Is Truth is a history of symmetry, briefly covering all of the usual suspects—the Babylonians, Euclid, Omar Khayyám, Cardano, Gauss, Lagrange, Abel, Galois, Lie, &c. up to modern group theory, then backtracking and going over Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, Schrödinger, Heisenberg, Wigner, Witten, &c. stumbling in the general direction of physical symmetries—with the usual variable amount of accuracy. It also contains a very tiny bit of mathematics, for which Stewart apologis As advertised, Why Beauty Is Truth is a history of symmetry, briefly covering all of the usual suspects—the Babylonians, Euclid, Omar Khayyám, Cardano, Gauss, Lagrange, Abel, Galois, Lie, &c. up to modern group theory, then backtracking and going over Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, Schrödinger, Heisenberg, Wigner, Witten, &c. stumbling in the general direction of physical symmetries—with the usual variable amount of accuracy. It also contains a very tiny bit of mathematics, for which Stewart apologises profusely and continuously; the two pages of his first apology starting by repeating the sentiment that every equation halves the sale of a book and continuing with repeated assurances that the reader will not be expected to understand what such complicated symbols as √ and ² mean or even to look at any of the mathematics and really if you'd rather have a lie-down that's fine too. Stewart has always been, to some extent, the sort of mathematician who's dreadfully embarrassed to be a mathematician (though to his credit, he does sort of stick up for his field in the closing chapter) and who seems to think that The Public uniformly hates mathematics despite the fact that part of it—the part that's his audience—clearly bought a book about mathematics. His endless apologies for the existence of his chosen field might be merely tedious, but the fact that his attitude also leads him to assume his readers never got past elementary-school mathematics and don't even remember most of that crosses into the offensive. I don't know who Stewart imagines his audience is, but he underestimates it. The physics it contains is, if anything, worse. While the mathematics is too shallow and fragmentary to be understood by a reader who is not already familiar with them, it is, where it's not too vague to tell, at least broadly correct. Stewart's grasp on physics, though, is far less reliable; knowing that the speed of light in a vacuum is a matter of definition rather than measurement is one thing, but purporting to explain relativity and then not knowing that rotation is not just a matter of perspective or dismissing the luminiferous aether but then discussing the ``fabric of spacetime'' in the exact same terms, for example, is less excusable. Stewart is not a physicist; that does not exonerate him. As such, it's probably most generous to treat Why Truthy is Beaut not as a work of popular mathematics or (especially) popular physics, but as one of popular history. As a book about history, the mathematics bit of it is basically interchangeable with any of a hundred other books written by mathematicians on the same general subject, and the physics bit is basically interchangeable with any of a hundred other books written by physicists on the same general subject, but if history is what you're after, its innocent inaccuracies, which would be more than acceptable in popular mathematics, destroy it. In the end, there are many books covering roughly the same ground that are much better all around, including some written by Stewart himself. Why Beauty is Truth is not worth your time. I'm sure I used to have more patience for Stewart; I don't know what happened.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Hugh Williams

    I would have enjoyed Why Beauty is Truth a lot more if I understood higher mathematics better. Stewart is an excellent writer, but I'm afraid the material is less approachable than he makes it out to be. On the other hand, the historical side is quite accessible and comprises numerous deftly-told and intriguing stories. The only criticism I would offer from a content standpoint is his dismissal of anything having to do with the so-called "fine tuning" arguments for the existence of God. More than I would have enjoyed Why Beauty is Truth a lot more if I understood higher mathematics better. Stewart is an excellent writer, but I'm afraid the material is less approachable than he makes it out to be. On the other hand, the historical side is quite accessible and comprises numerous deftly-told and intriguing stories. The only criticism I would offer from a content standpoint is his dismissal of anything having to do with the so-called "fine tuning" arguments for the existence of God. More than once he simply labels them "bogus" and proceeds on his way. As those matters are peripheral to the story he's trying to tell, it's a minor gripe, but they do stand in stark contrast to the rigor that characterizes the rest of the book.

  3. 5 out of 5

    David

    A crash course in Mathematical history focusing on symmetry told by a mathematician with an actual sense of humor and an ability to make all the in depth historical tidbits very interesting. A must read for all geeks.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Cassandra Kay Silva

    I am trying to work my way through some mathematical studies and thought this would be interesting. It was a nice but also maybe boring? I usually like reading the histories of math and was excited at the onset by the Babylonian character first introduced. But then the author almost seemed to apologize for his style, dismiss the character and hurry off to the next one. He then adopts a style of quickly getting you interested in the character and then dropping them off at the dock before you get I am trying to work my way through some mathematical studies and thought this would be interesting. It was a nice but also maybe boring? I usually like reading the histories of math and was excited at the onset by the Babylonian character first introduced. But then the author almost seemed to apologize for his style, dismiss the character and hurry off to the next one. He then adopts a style of quickly getting you interested in the character and then dropping them off at the dock before you get to have too many wild adventures aboard. Perhaps a few well written biographies would have been better, or a few more wild adventures? I don't know if the personal details about each of these characters necessarily helped. Perhaps either focus on the math or interweave a good biography with the math, but not with so many different characters that you cant get attached to loving the math or the characters. Anyway the math portion was good and I do think that symmetry is important as it has proven time and time again in both math and physics as well as the natural world so its hard to say. Still was a bit boring though, although I liked the subject matter.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Phalguni

    Not only is the content beautifully chosen and laid out, but the style of narration is natural and easy to follow. Many popular science books tend to get increasingly obscure and uninteresting after a few beginning chapters, but Why Beauty is Truth succeeds in keeping the reader engaged till the very end. I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in mathematics and theoretical physics.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Dav

    While I don't feel I can claim anything close to truly grasping the concepts of mathematical symmetry after reading this book, I do feel I now understand the general structure of various forms of mathematics and how the built upon each other in order to reach the point we are at now. Specifically the point wherein the concepts of symmetry and group theory are being exploited by our most advanced scientists to understand our universe at a quantum level. This books starts at the beginning with the While I don't feel I can claim anything close to truly grasping the concepts of mathematical symmetry after reading this book, I do feel I now understand the general structure of various forms of mathematics and how the built upon each other in order to reach the point we are at now. Specifically the point wherein the concepts of symmetry and group theory are being exploited by our most advanced scientists to understand our universe at a quantum level. This books starts at the beginning with the first mathematicians and meanders through time following them as they develop from simple geometry to number theory and algebra up into complex numbers, quarternions on to group theory, Lie groups, topology and more. This is a book for a general audience, so there is plenty of biographical content on the mathematicians which I sometimes found interesting but I often rushed through these sections as I found myself much more interested in trying to understand the math (although I should say that the lives of many famous mathematicians are more interesting that one might suppose). If there is a real shortcoming to this book it is the author's stated goal of including as few diagrams as possible (based on a publishing industry maxim that each diagram in a popular mathematics book decreases sales by a certain amount). I'm a visual person and often wanted to see concepts expressed graphically. This book has certainly whetted my appetite for a deeper exploration of many of the mathematical concepts it reviewed! While dancing on an art car one night at Burning Man this year (where I spent a week finishing the book) I watched a grid of lasers mounted on our vehicle shine out on the dancing crowd below. The lasers were undergoing a rotational transformation driven by our dancing which sparked nearly an hour of trying to retrace my way through what I had learned in the book. I wasn't able to do it very well, and I'm a bit torn now between rereading it to see if the concepts settle in more firmly the second time or looking into finding individual books on the subjects (hopefully with plenty of diagrams and exercises).

  7. 4 out of 5

    Carl

    I have read a lot of science in the past few years but not much math. This humbling reading experience helps me realize just how little I know. Here's a paragraph (page 168): The four structures that Killing refers to are the Lie algebras su(n), so(2n), so(2n+1), and sp(2n) corresponding to the families of groups SU(n), SO(2n), SO(2n+1), and SP(2n): the unitary groups, the orthogonal groups in spaces of even dimension, the orthogonal groups in spaces of odd dimension, and the symplectic groups in I have read a lot of science in the past few years but not much math. This humbling reading experience helps me realize just how little I know. Here's a paragraph (page 168): The four structures that Killing refers to are the Lie algebras su(n), so(2n), so(2n+1), and sp(2n) corresponding to the families of groups SU(n), SO(2n), SO(2n+1), and SP(2n): the unitary groups, the orthogonal groups in spaces of even dimension, the orthogonal groups in spaces of odd dimension, and the symplectic groups in spaces of even dimension. The symplectic groups are the symmetries of the position-momentum variables introduced by Hamilton in his formulation of mechanics, and the number of dimensions is always even because the variables come in position-momentum pairs. Aside from these four families, Killing claimed that exactly six other simple Lie algebras exist. Whaaaa? It is to Stewart's credit that I have a vague idea of what he's talking about, because before I started this book I would have lost him completely after the first "that". Other than my basic knowledge of syntax, which helps me by reinforcing that "Killing" and "Lie" are people and not common English words in this context, the rest of this skitters away from me like the shards of a glass I have dropped on the kitchen floor. I'm not putting that back together in any useful way! I find it fascinating, though. The story of symmetry -- which just starts to coalesce in my head at around the aforementioned page, halfway through the book -- is in part the story of mathematicians: a collection of stubbornness, self-centeredness, genius, curiosity, focus, sour grapes, and flat-out bad luck. What do I really understand now that I'm done? Not sure. But I do feel a bit of dawn creeping over the horizon now and then. Proceeding from the pure math section into the theoretical physics chapter didn't really click the symmetry light on as I hoped it would. Of course, I picked up the book because I was curious about how I could apply its ideas to the study of literature! So far, I'm thinking this was a pipe dream....

  8. 5 out of 5

    Brett

    This was a frustrating read. Parts in the first half of the book were insightful and very enjoyable. Unfortunately, large portions of the second half were simply beyond my intellectual firepower. The frustrating part was watching Stewart meander off into the postmodern mathematical wonderland of nonsense. Let me provide a paragraph typical of the last 100 pages: "The exceptional group G2 also makes an appearance in the latest twist to the story, which Witten calls M-theory. The "M," he says, sta This was a frustrating read. Parts in the first half of the book were insightful and very enjoyable. Unfortunately, large portions of the second half were simply beyond my intellectual firepower. The frustrating part was watching Stewart meander off into the postmodern mathematical wonderland of nonsense. Let me provide a paragraph typical of the last 100 pages: "The exceptional group G2 also makes an appearance in the latest twist to the story, which Witten calls M-theory. The "M," he says, stands for magic, mystery, or matrix. M-theory posits an 11-dimensional space-time, which unifies all five of the 10-dimensional string theories, in the sense that each can be obtained from M-theory by fixing some of its constants to particular values. In M-theory, Calabi-Yau manifolds are replaced by 7-dimensional spaces known as G2-manifolds, because their symmetries are closely related to Killing's exceptional Lie group G2." Ugh... am I really supposed to have any idea what he is talking about? I trust Stewart is a brilliant man but several times I wondered if this brilliance is taking him down some mathematical fairy trails.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Daniel Cunningham

    This was, as advertised, a history of symmetry; I feel that I did not get a good understanding for what exactly symmetry is, in a more advanced sense, however, which is partially what I was after. Being able to perform an operation on an 'object' and not change it... got it. But when he starts talking about Lie groups, it all went a bit fuzzy for me. I know math (and science) books avoid like the plague actually having math in them, but this would have benefited from e.g. 'psuedocode' examples o This was, as advertised, a history of symmetry; I feel that I did not get a good understanding for what exactly symmetry is, in a more advanced sense, however, which is partially what I was after. Being able to perform an operation on an 'object' and not change it... got it. But when he starts talking about Lie groups, it all went a bit fuzzy for me. I know math (and science) books avoid like the plague actually having math in them, but this would have benefited from e.g. 'psuedocode' examples of what the various symmetries are/do, collected together at some point. Maybe crammed into an appendix for the more interested reader, etc. The cryptic notation (SO(2), E4, etc.) is fine, and what else are you going to call the things anyway, but without *something* concrete to hang those names off of it all becomes a hash. For me anyway. Nonetheless, it was an entertaining read, and fairly quick at that.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Eric Lee

    This book reads more like an account of history rather than a documentation of the various symmetries in science and math. Certainly the author introduces only mathematicians and scientists relevant to the affair but he seems to spend more time on their lives than he spends on lucid and approachable descriptions of “symmetries”. Even as someone with a background in higher-level mathematics, I found his attempts to straddle both approachability and avoid over-simplification to be unsuccessful and This book reads more like an account of history rather than a documentation of the various symmetries in science and math. Certainly the author introduces only mathematicians and scientists relevant to the affair but he seems to spend more time on their lives than he spends on lucid and approachable descriptions of “symmetries”. Even as someone with a background in higher-level mathematics, I found his attempts to straddle both approachability and avoid over-simplification to be unsuccessful and failed in both regards as the ideas grew more complex; this was especially true in the discussions of gauge symmetries and string theory. Overall, I think this may be an okay introduction for the layman to symmetries in math and science but I certainly think the book could have been bettered by having spent more time choosing more carefully constructed analogies. Also, no mention of Emmy Noether! This makes me skeptical of the author’s “physics chops” to have not included some of her work. At the very least, this book has made clear that symmetry has been a driving force in number theory and GUTs but I couldn’t tell you in detail what exactly that means but to that end I’ve been motivated to pick up a few books on abstract algebra, topology, and group theory.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Islomjon

    "Why Beauty Is Truth" lacks its enthusiastic charm. I should admit that book took my attention while reading about Babylonians and Greeks, even it was interesting to read about Arabic science and Renaissance Italy. However, after some time I barely hold my attention and keeping myself from skipping pages. Nevertheless, Ian Stewart had given a huge effort to create masterful text and interesting narration. It's worth to note that he included facts about famous mathematicians' lives and contributio "Why Beauty Is Truth" lacks its enthusiastic charm. I should admit that book took my attention while reading about Babylonians and Greeks, even it was interesting to read about Arabic science and Renaissance Italy. However, after some time I barely hold my attention and keeping myself from skipping pages. Nevertheless, Ian Stewart had given a huge effort to create masterful text and interesting narration. It's worth to note that he included facts about famous mathematicians' lives and contributions to the science such as Cordano, Gauss and (new mathematician for me) Éverete Galois, etc.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Shawn

    Thought it was so much fun getting into the minds of the Geometor cults and how the great mathmaticians thought when they discovered these formulas that kind of shoned alot of light on to reality using just numbers and the relationship between numbers.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Robert

    I think this is where I learned about the monster group.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Farah Nasir

    An absolute joy to read!

  15. 4 out of 5

    Joseph Patterson

    I loved reading this. Beautiful physics requires some beautiful mathematics. Great storytelling and flow, even if you're familiar with most topics and people. I loved reading this. Beautiful physics requires some beautiful mathematics. Great storytelling and flow, even if you're familiar with most topics and people.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Andrew

    Ian Stewart writes wonderful books about mathematics (I have yet to have the pleasure to read his textbooks, and doubt I could understand his papers). This is the most difficult book of his that I have read, but mostly because it is impossible to discuss the importance of symmetry without mentioning the important discoveries, which are mostly highly technical. While he does an excellent job breaking these down so they are (somewhat) understandable without sacrificing their meaning, he cannot avo Ian Stewart writes wonderful books about mathematics (I have yet to have the pleasure to read his textbooks, and doubt I could understand his papers). This is the most difficult book of his that I have read, but mostly because it is impossible to discuss the importance of symmetry without mentioning the important discoveries, which are mostly highly technical. While he does an excellent job breaking these down so they are (somewhat) understandable without sacrificing their meaning, he cannot avoid the intense vocabulary that leaves one's head spinning (for example, the description of the octonions as an 8-dimensional Exceptional Normed Division Algebra with 14-dimensional symmetry includes so many statements that the best most of us can do is accept the terminology and plow forward, hoping for the best [which is a major point in Stewart's "Letters to a Young Mathematician", an absolute recommendation]). Stewart tells the history of Symmetry through the lives of the mathematicians who developed it. The fact that so many of the players led dangerous or risque lives (Galois died in duel, Schrodinger kept changing universities because he lived with his wife AND his mistress) adds color to the amazing ideas these men (no women in this book, sadly) developed. He explains the idea, gives the reader an analogy, and continues with where the discovery fit in the life of the mathematician. This makes the book easy to read and quite enjoyable, which is impressive because the subject matter can get very difficult to understand. He brings forward a lot of material people should remember from high school and then answers why these things were important, mostly through showing that what we learn is merely the stepping stones towards fascinating ideas in mathematics. This book has done much to convince me to go back for my Master's, but I feel I should pick up a technical book on symmetry first. Perhaps a study in quantum mechanics would also be helpful as our mathematical understandings have symmetry have helped improve our understandings of the particles that make up the universe, including the ones we have yet to find but mathematically believe to exist. I cannot give the book a perfect rating, however. For some reason, Mr. Stewart feels it necessary to include random, nonsensical, infuriating jabs at religious belief. These statements (or sections in some case) do nothing for the story and do not provide any insights towards either mathematics or religious belief. The most annoying one is blaming Killing's lack of recognition on his and his wife's being Third Order Franciscans, and treating their choice with (what feels like) derision. Seeing as how mathematicians that fight for their recognition tend to end up penniless and dejected (the best example being Leibniz), it seems that Killing was better off doing things his way. I find myself at a loss for understanding why Ian Stewart did this, but other than these portions of the book, it shined. I gladly recommend this for anyone interested in mathematics, physics, math-history, or the question of what beauty has to say about truth. It turns out, beauty has much more to say than most believe. "In mathematics, beauty must be true- because anything false is ugly.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Deana

    I really enjoyed the first half of this book. Ian Stewart is great at telling entertaining stories and getting me interested in mathematics, even without bringing up explicit equations or going too in depth. He gives the general ideas, just enough so you understand the concept, without going over our heads. And he's good at relating them to real world problems and examples, too. During the second half of the book, though, the concepts quickly become more and more difficult to understand, even wit I really enjoyed the first half of this book. Ian Stewart is great at telling entertaining stories and getting me interested in mathematics, even without bringing up explicit equations or going too in depth. He gives the general ideas, just enough so you understand the concept, without going over our heads. And he's good at relating them to real world problems and examples, too. During the second half of the book, though, the concepts quickly become more and more difficult to understand, even with his basic explanations. I found myself not fully understanding what he was talking about, but forcing myself to go on anyway. Sometimes things become clear, sometimes not. But it usually didn't prevent me from understanding just enough to move on. One of my favorite parts of the book is learning more about the personal lives of the mathematicians and physicists - being able to look at them more like normal people, rather than socially awkward geniuses who just sit around and do math all day. My biggest complaint is that it doesn't really answer the question posed in the title. While it does focus on symmetry as being the thing that ties mathematics and physics concepts together throughout the book (though not the type of symmetry we learn in school, but a more general version)... and he -does- emphasize over and over again that the things that have turned out to be correct generally turn out to be more "beautiful" (in a mathematical sense) than the incorrect answers... so when they discover a really ugly solution to a problem, they suspect it is incorrect (and have usually been correct). Very interesting. But it doesn't explain WHY this is true. Overall interesting book, but definitely not for everyone!

  18. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    While I enjoyed parts of this book, overall I was disappointed. I'm not a mathmatician, but I am well-educated and the jargon (and the formulas without explaining them) used by the author really created a barrier. There were MANY times when I would feel like I was finally getting what the author was writing only to miss out completely on the point due to the jargon used in the conclusion of an anecdote. In addition, the way the author organized his writing is not conducive to understanding, in m While I enjoyed parts of this book, overall I was disappointed. I'm not a mathmatician, but I am well-educated and the jargon (and the formulas without explaining them) used by the author really created a barrier. There were MANY times when I would feel like I was finally getting what the author was writing only to miss out completely on the point due to the jargon used in the conclusion of an anecdote. In addition, the way the author organized his writing is not conducive to understanding, in my opinion. I'm not sure if this is related to how mathmaticians' brain work, but I found the narrative organization completely confusing - he often jumped around in time, mentioning other anecdotes, but it was never really clear how they were related. Also, too many times, the author would end a section with something like, "...so this (narative) obviously leads to conclusion X, right? Wrong." and then go on to explain, but again in his usual jargon filled way. Put all this together and you get a book that doesn't do it's subject any justice. The beginning of the book in particular was difficult to truely follow and I can't help but feel that this resulted in missing out on the largest point of the book - how the discoveries built on each other over the years.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Shane

    A very interesting history of the development of group theory and it's relationship to modern physics. This is not a mathematical history, but the story of the lives and ideas of the mathematicians and physicists that developed group theory. Those versed in mathematics might be frustrated by the lack of math, but a book that took the middle way between mathematical rigor and interesting history would have a very small audience. There are a couple of small errors in the book. Stewart refers to Ei A very interesting history of the development of group theory and it's relationship to modern physics. This is not a mathematical history, but the story of the lives and ideas of the mathematicians and physicists that developed group theory. Those versed in mathematics might be frustrated by the lack of math, but a book that took the middle way between mathematical rigor and interesting history would have a very small audience. There are a couple of small errors in the book. Stewart refers to Einstein and Mileva's "only son" when in fact they had two sons--Hans Albert, born in 1904 and Eduard born in 1910. Tragically, Eduard was afflicted with schizophrenia. The second error may be a purposeful attempt at simplifying the physics of the strong interaction. Stewart implies that the SU(3) gauge symmetry group of quantum chromodynamics is a flavor symmetry between the quark flavors up, down, charm etc. In fact the SU(3) symmetry is a color symmetry between the three colors of quarks. These are minor quibbles though. Overall, I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in mathematics and especially to physicists.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Karen

    I am not sure how well this would explain the scientific aspects of symmetry to folks who haven't had prior exposure, but for me it was a good overview. I will probably get a copy so I can reread parts that were not quite clear the first time - it is definitely a book that will make more sense having read it once. I was disappointed that it only covered math and physics, and didn't get into the implications of symmetry on chemistry (which is where I first encountered it). But I didn't know most I am not sure how well this would explain the scientific aspects of symmetry to folks who haven't had prior exposure, but for me it was a good overview. I will probably get a copy so I can reread parts that were not quite clear the first time - it is definitely a book that will make more sense having read it once. I was disappointed that it only covered math and physics, and didn't get into the implications of symmetry on chemistry (which is where I first encountered it). But I didn't know most of the math and physics stuff, so in that sense it was a good read. I was also disappointed by the conclusions, which I thought were repetitive and failed to give a good summary of the book, but that's only a few pages at the end. I can't compare to other books on the subject, but I enjoyed reading this one.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Saurabh Saini

    I like it much better than another popular science book on the concept of symmetries "Symmetry and monsters". The story is presented much more elegantly and connections between various chapters are shown more properly. Ian presents nice arguments in favour of why mathematicians pursue mathematical beauty and why many a time (but not always) such theories turn out to be the perfect representation of truth in physics. Inspite of having these aesthetic notions about the truth, he is still being real I like it much better than another popular science book on the concept of symmetries "Symmetry and monsters". The story is presented much more elegantly and connections between various chapters are shown more properly. Ian presents nice arguments in favour of why mathematicians pursue mathematical beauty and why many a time (but not always) such theories turn out to be the perfect representation of truth in physics. Inspite of having these aesthetic notions about the truth, he is still being realistic in his arguments. In the last chapter he states : "What all this suggests is not that mathematical beauty is the same as physical truth but that it is necessary for physical truth. It is not sufficient." A nice read on the whole.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Christine Cordula Dantas

    A very good popularization book on the historical development of symmetry in mathematics and its applications in physics (specially in the last chapters). It is an easy and pleasant reading, with interesting and amusing short biographies of the mathematicians. The use of analogies is neatly done. I have enjoyed more the first half or so of the book than the latter part (on physics applications), maybe because the latter was well-known to me, so I have skipped a few of those parts. The book ends A very good popularization book on the historical development of symmetry in mathematics and its applications in physics (specially in the last chapters). It is an easy and pleasant reading, with interesting and amusing short biographies of the mathematicians. The use of analogies is neatly done. I have enjoyed more the first half or so of the book than the latter part (on physics applications), maybe because the latter was well-known to me, so I have skipped a few of those parts. The book ends with relevant considerations on the mysterious role of mathematics for describing nature, the issues of beauty and truth, etc, which are evidently important questions to be introduced to the lay reader.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Satya

    The major portion of this book chronicles the lives of some of the luminaries in Mathematics. The author and mathematician, Ian Stewart in the book 'why beauty is truth', made an attempt to present the ideas of symmetry and how it has sprung up from group theory invented by Galois, however, the book stands prosaic and lackluster. I was of the opinion that this book lays some interesting insights into group theory liaison with symmetry. To my dismay, this book focussed mainly on the mathematical The major portion of this book chronicles the lives of some of the luminaries in Mathematics. The author and mathematician, Ian Stewart in the book 'why beauty is truth', made an attempt to present the ideas of symmetry and how it has sprung up from group theory invented by Galois, however, the book stands prosaic and lackluster. I was of the opinion that this book lays some interesting insights into group theory liaison with symmetry. To my dismay, this book focussed mainly on the mathematical pedigree and lacks beauty!

  24. 4 out of 5

    Harlen

    This book really helped me view mathematics in a new light. Seeing it not as a painful reminder of school but as way to further understanding of our reality. The text covers an enormous range of topics beginning with the Babylonian number system and ending with string theory and the applications of octonions. Not only does this book describe mathematical theories their evolution, but it also goes into the biographical details of the mathematicians who made these discoveries.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Dezign

    Though I enjoyed this book, I couldn't help thinking that those untrained in higher mathematics (as I happen to be) wouldn't be able to follow much of the second half of the book. Whereas in the first half Stewart spends a lot of time explaining simple things like what two raised to the third power means, it seemed the more complicated the math got the less time he spends attempting to explain it. Though I enjoyed this book, I couldn't help thinking that those untrained in higher mathematics (as I happen to be) wouldn't be able to follow much of the second half of the book. Whereas in the first half Stewart spends a lot of time explaining simple things like what two raised to the third power means, it seemed the more complicated the math got the less time he spends attempting to explain it.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Jon Larimer

    Decent history of mathematics and symmetry. A lot of layman's physics books (Brian Greene, Michio Kaku, etc) don't spend much time explaining the kind of symmetry they're talking about regarding quantum physics, but this book explains it well. I do think it ended too abruptly, not speculating much about the future. Decent history of mathematics and symmetry. A lot of layman's physics books (Brian Greene, Michio Kaku, etc) don't spend much time explaining the kind of symmetry they're talking about regarding quantum physics, but this book explains it well. I do think it ended too abruptly, not speculating much about the future.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Russell

    Another great maths book for the educated layman by Ian Stewart. It wasn't afraid to show equations - not to teach them to the reader but to get a feeling for how they look and what shape they are. The last couple of chapters gave an interesting overview of how the physics Superstring theories use the mathematics of symmetry groups in their operation. Another great maths book for the educated layman by Ian Stewart. It wasn't afraid to show equations - not to teach them to the reader but to get a feeling for how they look and what shape they are. The last couple of chapters gave an interesting overview of how the physics Superstring theories use the mathematics of symmetry groups in their operation.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Sophie

    A fascinating look at various mathematicians in their pursuit of mathematical symmetry. Unfortunately for me, it became increasingly technical as the math moved towards quantum physics, and I lost the narrative thread through my own mathematical naiveté. But if you like math and challenges, definitely worth giving it a try!

  29. 4 out of 5

    Mary Coons

    So much to think about in this book. But I gotta admit, higher math is flat over my head, so I only got a vague grasp of oh, two-thirds of the book. But the premise--that the universe is inexplicably described by very elegant mathematical formulae--was so fascinating that I slogged through the math.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Margaret

    I thought this would be an easier read, but it turned out to be a bit over my head. Probably a much better book if you're more into math and physics than I am. If you're looking for an easy read of a science or math book, this isn't it. I thought this would be an easier read, but it turned out to be a bit over my head. Probably a much better book if you're more into math and physics than I am. If you're looking for an easy read of a science or math book, this isn't it.

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