182: The Music of Pythagoras by Kitty Ferguson

by Gerard


182.2: Ferguson, Kitty. The Music of Pythagoras: How an Ancient Brotherhood Cracked the Code of the Universe and Lit the Path from Antiquity to Outer Space. New York: Walker and Company, 2008. 328 pp. ISBN 0-8027-1631-8.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 100: Philosophy and Psychology
  • 180: Ancient, medieval, and Eastern philosophy
  • 182: Pre-Socratic Greek philosophies
  • 182.2: Pythagorean philosophies

All that is left of him is an equation: a-squared plus b-squared equals c-squared. Every person going through basic geometry hears it. And yet for its ubiquity and almost-infinite proofs, there is very little known of the man who first discovered it in the Western world (there were earlier proofs in Babylon and India). Pythagoras (ca. 570 BCE – ca. 495 BCE) is a man surrounded by mystery. He formed a philosophical cult, but forbade anyone to write anything down, and yet his theorem survived. Kitty Ferguson’s The Music of Pythagoras attempts to separate fact from fiction on behalf of this ancient Greek thinker.

The lack of credible, contemporaneous sources make any biography of Pythagoras tricky at best. While his contributions to mathematics are indispensable, it is his philosophy that Ferguson is after. Greek historians and biographers (writing centuries after his death) described the cult of Pythagoras as an odd one. They were strict vegetarians, believed in the transmigration of souls, and that the Earth, Sun, and all other celestial bodies revolved around a Central Fire. Also central to their system was that numbers could explain the true nature of the universe.

Ferguson does her best to compile a good biography but falls at times into the same traps as others, conjecturing when the evidence is scant. After she goes through the life of Pythagoras, she posits an intellectual heritage that extends from his time through to the present day, going from Ptolemy to Kepler to Bertrand Russell. The writing is good but not stellar. On the plus side, you really learn a lot about ancient Greek philosophy. If you want a book about a mathematician that isn’t all about the math, then this one will do just fine.