Friday, 20 July 2018

Book Review: A Brief History of Infinity

I read "A Brief History of Infinity: The Quest To Think The Unthinkable" by Brian Clegg at Book Xcess and ended up buying a different book since I finished reading this one there (it's not long, only 243 pages). 

As a propitiatory gesture for not buying this book, I offer this hopefully favourable review. Since childhood, I have been awed and fascinated by the concept of infinity. What lies beyond infinity? How can be know something to be infinite if we haven't gone to the ends of it? How do we know infinity to be the most vast thing in existence if there is nothing we can compare it with? Is infinity merely a human concept, an idea that exists only in our minds? Why does the idea of infinity evoke such strong emotions in us? Brian Clegg explores this topic in a gently entertaining and accessible way, introducing everyone from St. Augustine and Georg Cantor to Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz along the way as though they are familiar, friendly, well-loved characters in a play. 

Clegg does not, unfortunately, possess the scintillating wit and bold insight of Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley or Richard Dawkins. His style is more like that of Jostein Gaarder in his whimsical little primer on philosophy, Sophie's World. I have to constantly remind myself that Clegg, did, after all, truthfully describe his book as "A Brief History of Infinity" and not "A Comprehensive Essay on Theoretical Physics." Just as "Sophie's World" is not intended for the Philosophy major, "A Brief History of Infinity" is for the casual lay reader, not the reader with a background in Mathematics or Physics. What Clegg's book ultimately does is not provide you with solid answers to the questions of whether "Can humans grasp infinity?", "Does infinity exist outside of the human mind?" or "What are the distinctions between mathematical, physical and cosmological infinity?", but provide the reader with the basic ideas of how mathematicians, philosophers and physicists have introduced, described, utilised and applied the abstract concept of infinity, and invite the reader to think, question, challenge, consider and appreciate that for which we have no direct observational evidence. 

 Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5.

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