Field of Science

Book review: A Divine Language: Learning Algebra, Geometry, and Calculus at the Edge of Old Age, by Alec Wilkinson

A beautifully written account of mathematics lost and found. The author got "estranged" from mathematics in school and now, at the age of 65 and after a distinguished writing career, has taken it upon himself to learn the fundamentals of algebra, geometry and calculus. The book is by turns funny and sad even as Wilkinson recounts his struggling attempts to master material that would be child's play for many bright teenagers. He is helped in his efforts by his niece Amie Wilkinson, an accomplished mathematician at the University of Chicago. I myself could empathize with the author since I too had an estrangement of sorts with the subject in high school because of a cruel, vindictive teacher, and it took me until college when, thanks to brilliant and empathetic teachers, I clawed myself back up to start appreciating it.

But while he may struggle even with high school mathematical skills (and he I share a particular loathing for word problems), Wilkinson brings a poetic, philosophical sensibility acquired through a long career to bear on the topic that no young 15-year-old whippersnapper genius in math could commit to paper. He ruminates on the platonic beauty of math and wonders whether and how some people's minds might be wired differently for it. He does not always understand how his brilliant mathematical niece Amie always "gets it" and she in turn doesn't always understand why her uncle has trouble with ideas that are second nature to her.

Often quoting from eloquent mathematicians and physicists like Bertrand Russell, G. H. Hardy and Roger Penrose, Wilkinson brings a fresh, beautiful perspective to the utility and beauty of mathematics; to the struggle inherent in mastering it and the rewards that await those who persevere. I would highly recommend the book to those who may have lost faith in mathematics in high school and want to pick up some of the concepts later, or even to young students of math who may be wizards at solving equations but who might want to acquire a broader, more philosophical perspective on this purest of human endeavors.

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