Book Review: In Pursuit of the Unknown


In Pursuit of the Unknown: 17 Equations That Changed the World
by Ian Stewart
Basic Books, 2012
342 pages (Hardcover)
Source: Brilliant Books


A2 + B2 = C2 and E = mc2 and these = more than you think. So is the premise behind In Pursuit of the Unknown: 17 Equations that Changed the World, which aims to bring the mystifying world of mathematics into the world of the knowns.

Ian Stewart, emeritus professor of mathematics and researcher at Warwick University (England), sets out to create an accessible guide to the seventeen equations that have done the most to change the world. Each chapter covers an equation, connecting it to the history of mathematical discovery and explaining why it is significant.

Beginning with Pythagoras’s Theorem and ending with Black-Scholes Equation, each chapter starts with an overview, providing the equation, and answering three basic questions most people might ask: What does it say?, Why is that important?, and What did it lead to?

Newton’s Law of Gravity, for example, leads to an “accurate prediction of eclipses” and “planetary orbits,” as well as the “Hubble telescope.” The Pythagorean Theorem is an important and “vital link between geometry and algebra,” and provided the foundation for “special and general relativity.” The latter, a product of Einstein’s genius, makes GPS possible.

There is a need for making science communicate to a broader audience and Stewart definitely works to do just that. The book is “approachable” as it claims, in that each chapter offers a lively account of the story behind each equation, including various illustrations. Nevertheless, while having the word “approachable” on the dust-jacket may pull in the average reader who is interested in math, it may also under-estimate the number of individuals in the world with extreme math phobia.

Non-mathematicians may be daunted by the presence of equations as they flip through In Pursuit of the Unknown, perhaps giving up before realizing the other treasures available within its pages. The narrative exploring these equations — remember, the book is on equations so one should expect to see them — is interesting and valuable enough for even math-phobes.

Stewart leaves little question as to why these equations are important and how the world is better off knowing them. His enthusiasm for his subject bleeds through the pages clearly. For the reader, the book entertains and engages the sense of wonder; it connects the transcendent world of math to their own and makes the unknown a bit more familiar.

  • John

    Thanks for your review, which prompted me to purchase this book.
    By itself, Chpt 3 on Isaac Newton and his development of calculus makes this book exceptionally valuable. I did not realize until reading the first few pages how important Newton’s work was in releasing so many developments and discoveries in science and technology.
    One “image discarded”. Another “image created” in its place.

  • Never know what might help discard those images. :)

    I’m glad the review sparked your interest. The strength of the book really is its ability to bring out the stories and connections (like that of Newton) that are not always made with other books on the subject. I hope you enjoy the rest of it.

  • John

    A couple moments ago I was reminded of my comments on Newton and wondered –
    Maybe it would be better to say –
    – one “image of mystery” discarded,
    – another “image of mystery” created in its place.
    Some mathematicians speak of the “mystery” of their formulas working to explain data, Here is the link to just one.
    “”The harmonics of the primes were distributed in the same patterns as the spectral lines of heavy metals — very suggestive idea,” said UC Berkeley math Professor David Eisenbud, director of the Berkeley-based Mathematical Sciences Research Institute ……
    “Who would imagine that the spectral lines of heavy atoms were related to prime numbers?”
    “The question is open. But the hint is that primes are not abstract, not mere playthings….”

  • One image at a time makes sense. :)

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