Book Review: “Mathematicians: An Outer View of the Inner World”

In my last blog entry, I mentioned several math books I’ve been reading lately. Over the weekend I wrapped up reading Mathematicians: An Outer View of the Inner World, and wanted to take the opportunity to review it here.

Mathematicians: An Outer View of the Inner World

Mathematicians: An Outer View of the Inner World is a hardcover book of photos that centers around 92 well-established mathematicians. It is a work of art that presents, through each of the glossy images (which are printed on excellent quality paper), an autobiographical note on the left, and a large, black and white photograph of a mathematician on the right hand side.

The beautiful portraits, along with the short essays, help the reader to establish a brief emotional connection with each mathematician, as you become privy to the “outer view of their inner world”. Some of the featured mathematicians are young, many are older, some are well-known worldwide, others are relatively unknown. Their stories are intense and each fascinating in its own right. Many of these brilliant minds lived through WW2, and found that doing so had a strong impact on their lives and career choices.

Each mathematician interpreted the assignment of writing their micro-bio in a different way. Some tell you about their childhood and how they came to discover they joy of mathematics, others about what their biggest accomplishments to date have been, and a few talk about the open challenges they see in their field. The common thread amongst this diverse group is the wondrous search for knowledge, beauty and truth that transpires from their words. As Mariana Cook (the book’s photographer) mentions in the foreword, though she has photographed scientists and many other unrelated groups of people, she’s never experienced so many people referring so often to beauty and truth. Indeed math is beauty, elegance and truth!

Stunning photography and intimate essays make for a great work of art. Mathematicians is a book that can be enjoyed by anyone, from people who are passionate about mathematics to those who have been adverse to the subject all their lives. The latter group will probably look at the subject of math in a new light after experiencing this book.

The affordable price and large format of this book make it a coffee table piece that every geek should have. The hardest part for most math aficionados will be treating it like a coffee table book though, and not reading it cover to cover right away, as I did. This title left me with a strange sense of harmony and peace, and a renewed awareness about the importance of mathematics, as well as a desire to join their efforts in furthering the discipline. Well above what I was expecting from a photography-based book.

Click on the images to enlarge them.

Edward Nelson
Timothy Gowers
Andrew Wiles
Terence Tao

Have you read a math book that you’d like to review for Let us know.

One Response

  1. VC August 6, 2009

Leave a Reply