Cover image for Significant figures : the lives and work of great mathematicians
Significant figures : the lives and work of great mathematicians
First US edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Basic Books, 2017.
Physical Description:
303 pages : illustrations, portraits ; 24 cm
Do not disturb my circles : Archimedes -- Master of the Way : Liu Hui -- Dixit algorismi : Muhammad al-Khwarizmi -- Innovator of the infinite : Madhava of Sangamagrama -- The gambling astrologer : Girolamo Cardano -- The last theorem : Pierre de Fermat -- System of the world : Isaac Newton -- Master of us all : Leonhard Euler -- The heat operator : Joseph Fourier -- Invisible scaffolding : Carl Friedrich Gauss -- Bending the rules : Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky -- Radicals and revolutionaries : Évariste Galois -- Enchantress of a number : Augusta Ada King -- The laws of thought : George Boole -- Musician of the primes : Bernhard Riemann -- Cardinal of the continuum : Georg Cantor -- The first great lady : Sofia Kovalevskaia -- Ideas rose in crowds : Henri Poincaré -- We must know, we shall know : David Hilbert -- Overthrowing academic order : Emmy Noether -- The formula man : Srinivasa Ramanujan -- Incomplete and undecidable : Kurt Gödel -- The machine stops : Alan Turing -- Father of fractals : Benoit Mandelbrot -- Outside in : William Thurston -- Mathematical people.
A celebrated mathematician traces the history of math through the lives and work of twenty-five pioneering mathematicians. In Significant Figures, acclaimed mathematician Ian Stewart introduces the visionaries of mathematics throughout history. Delving into the lives of twenty-five great mathematicians, Stewart examines the roles they played in creating, inventing, and discovering the mathematics we use today. Through these short biographies, we get acquainted with the history of mathematics from Archimedes to Benoit Mandelbrot, and learn about those too often left out of the cannon, such as Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (c. 780-850), the creator of algebra, and Augusta Ada King (1815-1852), Countess of Lovelace, the world's first computer programmer. Tracing the evolution of mathematics over the course of two millennia, Significant Figures will educate and delight aspiring mathematicians and experts alike.


Material Type
Shelf Number
Book QA28.S74 2017 1
Book QA28.S74 2017 1

On Order



A celebrated mathematician traces the history of math through the lives and work of twenty-five pioneering mathematicians

In Significant Figures, acclaimed mathematician Ian Stewart explores the work of 25 of history's most important mathematicians, showing how they developed on each other's work and built the mathematics we use today.
Through these short biographies, we get acquainted with the history of mathematics from Archimedes to William Thurston, and learn about those too often left out of the cannon, such as Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, the creator of algebra; Ada Lovelace, the world's first computer programmer; and Emmy Noether, whose research on symmetry paved the way for modern physics.
Tracing the evolution of mathematics over the course of two millennia, Significant Figures will educate and delight aspiring mathematicians and experts alike.

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Stewart (Infinity), professor of mathematics at Warwick University, tells the history of mathematics though 25 biographies of influential mathematicians. The selections are ordered chronologically, beginning with Archimedes (third century B.C.E.) and ending with Fields Medal-winning topologist William Thurston (1946-2012). In between, the contributions of Newton, Poincaré, Gödel, and Turing, along with those of lesser-known mathematical giants, are explored. Stewart treats the spotlighted mathematics seriously and his rigorous explanations often include explanatory equations and in-depth discussions of esoteric concepts. He also strives to underscore the impact and real-world importance of each of the mathematicians' contributions. Stewart balances the demanding math with down-to-earth, even gossipy, thumbnail sketches of the mathematicians. For example, he offers that Newton may have invented the cat door; that George Boole, inventor of mathematical logic, loved his mother's gooseberry pies; and that an aging, paranoid Gödel's fear of being poisoned led him to starve himself to death. Stewart includes the mathematical accomplishments of three women, illuminating the obstacles each had to overcome to be accepted in the male-dominated field. Stewart folds into his biographies a broad swath of mathematics, including Euclidian and non-Euclidean geometries, set theory, calculus, algebra, and topology; readers with an affinity for math will find the material challenging and fun. Illus. Agent: George Lucas, Inkwell Management. (Sept.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Kirkus Review

Summarizing 2,500 years of mathematics milestones and the mathematicians who made them.Even a popularizer as skilled and prolific as Stewart (Mathematics/Univ. of Warwick; Calculating the Cosmos: How Mathematics Unveils the Universe, 2016, etc.) cannot expect general readers to fully digest his highly distilled explanations of what these significant figures did to resolve ever more complex conundrums as math advanced. The author clearly reviews Euclid and highlights the contributions of Arabic and Indian innovators in algebra and trigonometry, but things get more complicated as he turns to differential equations, three-dimensional manifolds, or multiholed tori. Thankfully, Stewart's brief but colorful sketches of the life and times of the innovators keep the pages turning. Besides well-known figures such as Archimedes, Pierre de Fermat, Isaac Newton, Alan Turing, and Kurt Gdel, the author also discusses variste Galois, the algebraist killed in a duel at age 20; Georg Cantor, who was driven to depression and breakdown by critics of his ideas of higher orders of numerical infinity; and Srinivasa Ramanujan, the self-taught Indian number theorist of phenomenal intuition. Among other biographical nuggets, we learn that Turing may not have died from self-inflicted cyanide poisoning but from inhaling fumes from other causes and that Gdel so feared being poisoned that he died of slow starvation. Stewart includes three women in his pantheon (Ada Lovelace, Sofia Kovalevskaia, and Emmy Noether) and blames centuries of cultural bias and not genes for their scant representation. In the final chapter, the author ponders what his subjects have in common. Most seem to have manifested aptitude at an early age, but otherwise, there are few shared aspects of class, character, education, or family background. One thing is certain, however: they all had a profound love for math. A text for teachers, precocious students, and intellectually curious readers unafraid to tread unfamiliar territory and learn what mad pursuits inspire mathematicians. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Booklist Review

Math is a science that has been communicated, taught, and recorded since the days of clay tablets in Babylonian times. Mathematician and prolific writer Stewart (Visions of Eternity, 2013) takes readers on a tour through the history of math from ancient Greece to China, India, Europe, and America. He also brings mathematical discoveries to life in engaging brief biographies of 25 foundational inventors of mathematical disciplines, spelling out the significance of their work. Natural patterns and cycles sparked brilliant insights about the workings of the universe in men and women whose intellect was matched by great curiosity and passion to share their ideas with others. Stewart considers just how amazing it is that concepts developed many hundreds of years ago are as accurate today as when they were first revealed and that they are still being used in cutting-edge computer programs. Part advanced math lesson and part history book, Stewart's celebration of seminal mathematicians and their findings will appeal to anyone who wants to better understand the building blocks of many of today's sciences.--Kaplan, Dan Copyright 2017 Booklist

Choice Review

In his latest book, a collection of 25 biographies of mathematicians, Stewart (emer., Univ. of Warwick, UK) has succeeded once again in writing about mathematics for a general audience. The profiled men and women span millennia and represent diverse cultures. The book is balanced in other ways too. There is no undue emphasis placed on any particular branch of mathematics. Pure and applied math share the stage. And the mathematicians' faults are displayed along with their greatest accomplishments. These are human stories. There are not many equations to intimidate readers, yet this reviewer expects that professional mathematicians will still learn a few things, for mathematics is a very broad field and the supply of entertaining stories of its greatest stars seems to be bottomless. There is a picture in each chapter of the mathematician in question, but not many other images outside of what is required to elucidate the mathematics being described. So, while this is not a coffee-table picture book, it is an interesting read, and there are some references at the end for those who wish to delve deeper. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels. --Craig Bauer, York College of Pennsylvania

Table of Contents

ArchimedesLiu HuiMuhammad al-KhwarizmiMadhava of SangamagramaGirolamo CardanoPierre de FermatIsaac NewtonLeonhard EulerJoseph FourierCarl Friedrich GaussNikolai Ivanovich LobachevskyÉvariste GaloisAugusta Ada KingGeorge BooleBernhard RiemannGeorg CantorSofia KovalevskaiaHenri PoincaréDavid HilbertEmmy NoetherSrinivasa RamanujanKurt GödelAlan TuringBenoit MandelbrotWilliam Thurston
Introductionp. 1
1 Do Not Disturb My Circlesp. 11
2 Master of the Wayp. 21
3 Dixit Algorismip. 28
4 Innovator of the Infinitep. 37
5 The Gambling Astrologerp. 45
6 The Last Theoremp. 53
7 System of the Worldp. 63
8 Master of Us Allp. 77
9 The Heat Operatorp. 87
10 Invisible Scaffoldingp. 96
11 Bending the Rulesp. 110
12 Radicals and Revolutionariesp. 121
13 Enchantress of Numberp. 133
14 The Laws of Thoughtp. 142
15 Musician of the Primesp. 155
16 Cardinal of the Continuump. 164
17 The First Great Ladyp. 176
18 Ideas Rose in Crowdsp. 188
19 We Must Know, We Shall Knowp. 200
20 Overthrowing Academic Orderp. 210
21 The Formula Manp. 221
22 Incomplete and Undecidablep. 234
23 The Machine Stopsp. 243
24 Father of Fractalsp. 255
25 Outside Inp. 267
Mathematical Peoplep. 277
Notesp. 283
Further Readingp. 286
Indexp. 291