I read e: the Story of a Number for MTH 495 and honestly didn’t really know what to expect from it in the beginning. I was afraid the math was going to be way too old school and over my head, but was surprised to find it relatively accessible. Eli Maor discusses the lives (not simply mathematical, either) of great mathematicians from Newton to the late 19th century. I really enjoyed the fact that I could put the stories he wrote with the theorems I had learned in various math classes, because when we learned them the first time around I had no idea who they were named after and what significance they held. Maor’s stories were surprising entertaining and “literature-like” for lack of a better word. I feel like often times people think that “math” people aren’t creative or capable of story telling, but Maor does an expert job of combining both disciplines to produce an astounding piece of literature. He tells the story of the birth of the letter e in math, but is sure to add in snide remarks and funny stories to make the process more enjoyable. As a side note, I also found it extremely helpful that he put little “side stories” in to show how e is used in real life, or to expand and extend a detail in one of the chapters. It gave more depth to the book overall.
There were, however, a few things I didn’t care so much for in the book. I am a very visual person, so just reading about a mathematical problem and its solution doesn’t really do it for me. I need to have it written out, in pictures, in steps, etc. to fully grasp what is happening. Although there were many instances where Maor did include pictures, there were many where he did not. Surely the book would have been much thicker with these pictures taking up more room, but it really would have helped me understand the math the first time around. Instead, I found myself reading pages over and over and over again. This next critique is going to sound odd, but it’s something that really bothered me while trying to read the book. The font is so dang small!! When I’m doing math and writing about math, you better believe I’m taking up pages upon pages because I want to be able to look at it without becoming overwhelmed. Trying to read through some of his explanations and problems literally made my head hurt at times.
So, after nitpicking a few items, I overall really enjoyed the book. It makes math history much more that tolerable–it makes it interesting! Reading about the mathematicians who invented the theorems we use and take for granted today gives me a whole new appreciation for what it means to invent and discover mathematics.