The best books of narrative merit in mathematics and science

The Books I Picked & Why

Why Beauty Is Truth: A History of Symmetry

By Ian Stewart

Book cover of Why Beauty Is Truth: A History of Symmetry

Why this book?

This book is a brilliant interweaving of politics, history, and intrigue, with characters living ordinary lives, described in the spirit of a Russian novel. With one story threading into another, the book moves us forwards. We fly over the tall mountains, misty valleys, and green fields of current abstract maths and fundamental physics to witness the true beauties of truth. And in the end, Stewart confesses: “No one could have predicted that a pedantic question about equations could reveal the deep structure of the physical world, but that is exactly what's happened.”

As with many of Stewart’s books, Why Beauty is Truth is a joy to read. It brings us through current material with ease of understanding and out oversimplifying. I love the way Stewart uses tangible examples to describe the fundamental forces of nature as he escorts us with clarity through so many eloquent connections between mathematics and physics. It is a book about symmetry, but so much more. With stories threading through each other, we learn about the ordinary lives of mathematicians and scientists with a braided by politics, history, and intrigue, as well as the fascinating connections between mathematics and the scientific structures of the natural world. 

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Thomas Harriot: A Life in Science

By Robyn Arianrhod

Book cover of Thomas Harriot: A Life in Science

Why this book?

For me, this book was an adventure. I felt as if I was on an expedition to Virginia with Harriot teaching me astronomy and navigation. There I was, infatuated with rainbows and imagining myself scrutinizing scientific wonders of elliptical planetary motion, atomic theory of matter, and how cannonballs could be stacked to fill space. I found myself with Harriot back in 1591 searching for a sphere-packing formula, an old problem questioning the most stable way to stack cannonballs on ships. Thomas Harriot is a fast-moving biography packed with the world- and mind-changing curiosities.

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Great Circles: The Transits of Mathematics and Poetry

By Emily Rolfe Grosholz

Book cover of Great Circles: The Transits of Mathematics and Poetry

Why this book?

Great Circles is a unique tale of the life and works of mathematicians, scientists, philosophers, poets, and other literary figures. It is collections of circles of thoughts and implications that return on themselves as if they are gravitationally attached to some core red dwarf of universal meaning.  

I loved reading this book. One moment I was into the math, and in the next, I was immersed in a relevant poem or was personality attached to some math or a philosophical thought about a connection of a poem with the math. It was a ride more than a read. It is a calming cognitive exercise on tour through and between chapters – mind wandering not permitted-- with a smooth comfort of thought as if Grosholz is in the room (or perhaps in your brain) reading and guiding.  

The poetry is gripping and wonderfully placed between the appropriate background materials. 

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The Best of All Possible Worlds: Mathematics and Destiny

By Ivar Ekeland

Book cover of The Best of All Possible Worlds: Mathematics and Destiny

Why this book?

Ekeland’s book is an entwinement of philosophical views of scientists with metaphysics dealing with nature’s directives. It’s an embroidery of lively anecdotes involving illustrious individuals and great historical moments of human decisions. We go through the Peloponnesian Wars, Venetian concessions to the Hapsburg emperor Maximilian, Darwin’s voyage to the Galapagos, and other enriching accounts. His explanations are clear, elegant, fluid, exhilarating, and suspenseful, reminding me of the effortless style of Richard Feynman. While reading, I felt compelled by a force of nature and purpose to learn about the best of all possible worlds.   

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Number: The Language of Science

By Tobias Dantzig

Book cover of Number: The Language of Science

Why this book?

More than any other, this book influenced me most about wanting to study mathematics. Of course, I was young at the time and strongly partial to Einstein’s remark, “This is beyond doubt the most interesting book on the evolution of mathematics which has ever fallen into my hands.” Many years later, when I exhaustively tried to find the book in any bookstore I passed, it was out of print. So I suggested it to my publisher, who immediately acquired the rights and republished it under my editing guidelines. It is the quintessential lure into mathematics for readers of any age.   

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