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Math goes prime time among book publishers

June 23, 2003|Kevin Canfield | Hartford Courant

Over the past half-dozen years, tormented mathematical geniuses have overrun movie screens and theater stages. First, in 1997, there was "Good Will Hunting," a film about a young janitor who possesses a preternatural talent for solving complex numerical problems. A year later came the movie "Pi," which takes its name from the magic number (3.14). The next few years brought "A Beautiful Mind," the story of mathematician John Nash, and two plays about elusive mathematical hypotheses: "Fermat's Last Tango" and "Proof."

Finally, book publishers are catching up and have brought out four books this spring.

HarperCollins is offering Marcus du Sautoy's "The Music of the Primes: Searching to Solve the Greatest Mystery." The National Academy of Sciences' John Henry Press has just published John Derbyshire's "Prime Obsession: Bernhard Riemann and the Greatest Unsolved Problem." Karl Sabbagh's "The Riemann Hypothesis: The Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics" is Farrar, Straus & Giroux's entry. And Julian Havil and Freeman Dyson have collaborated on Princeton University Press' "Gamma: Exploring Euler's Constant."

In the meantime, Basic Books is about to start pushing the paperback version of "The Millennium Problems: The Seven Greatest Unsolved Mathematical Puzzles of Our Time" by Keith J. Devlin, and novelist David Foster Wallace is soon to publish the nonfiction "Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity" for W.W. Norton.

Why the sudden spate of math books? Well, for one thing, three of the aforementioned books deal specifically with prime numbers -- this just a few years after the Clay Mathematics Institute offered a $1 million payoff to anyone who could come up with a proof for the Riemann Hypothesis, or RH.

Set forth by German mathematician Bernhard Riemann in 1859, the RH was an attempt to arrive at a clearer understanding of how primes -- numbers such as 5, 11 or 23, which can't be produced by multiplying two smaller numbers (are divisible only by 1 and their number) -- are arrayed throughout the "real numbers."

"The challenge," Sabbagh said recently, "is to find some way of showing the appeal of the problem for mathematicians without the reader needing to understand it in depth."

Sabbagh did this by focusing on the mathematicians, not the RH problem itself. He profiles math professionals for whom solving the RH would be akin to winning the World Series.

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