November 29, 2004

Prime Obsession

I finally finished reading Prime Obession: Bernhard Riemann and the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics by John Derbyshire. What an excellent book!

The Riemann Hypothesis began as a side observation made by Riemann in a paper he wrote in 1859 discussing the pattern of prime numbers (numbers divisible only by themselves and the number 1). It has since proven to be a tough nut to crack. Although significant progress has been made, and all the evidence indicates that Riemann's intuition was correct, no one has succeeded in finding a formal proof.

John Derbyshire does an excellent job of gently explaining the math and the significance of the RH. He alternates chapters between math and history. In the math chapters, he slowly builds the foundation for understanding, or at least appreciating, the mystery and beauty of the study of prime numbers. The history chapters give you a chance to come up for air and are filled with interesting anecdotes about Riemann, his predecessors, and those who have continued the quest. I'm in awe of how much progress people made so many years ago, often amidst great personal hardship, and certainly with relatively primitive instruments.

One of my biggest regrets in life is the way I studiously avoided math courses in college. It wasn't until late in the process of getting my BA that I discovered that I could survive a math class and actually enjoy it too! Having recently embarked on the journey to an MS in software engineering, I hope to do some catching up!

I'm sure I'll sound like an idiot saying this, but if you want to explore magic and mystery on a cosmic scale, math is the ticket!

Posted November 29, 2004 9:54 PM

What made you decide to read that book? You wrote a good review - now I'm interested to read it. And I'm so glad to see someone else extolling the virtues found in learning math! (I majored in math in college.)

Posted by: Dianne at November 30, 2004 8:58 AM

Ah, I should have included that in my entry. My friend Jesse assigned it to me as homework (sort of).

Posted by: Dave Lemen at November 30, 2004 9:10 AM

I heard that there was a documentary on this. My prof. mentioned it and I'm dying to see it. I've got no use for books...

Posted by: Josh Blanco at November 30, 2004 2:38 PM