512: A History of Pi by Petr Beckmann

by Gerard


512.924: Beckmann, Petr. A History of Pi. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1990. 189 pp. ISBN 0-8802-9418-3.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 500: Science
  • 510: Mathematics
  • 512: Algebra
  • 512.9: Foundations of algebra
  • 512.92: Algebraic operations
  • 512.924: Approximation, ratio, and proportion

Pi is an amazing, irrational, and indispensable tool in the mathematical and scientific world. Nature loves a curve, and it takes pi to measure them. At its core, pi is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its radius. It is a strange quirk of the universe that it takes a little more than three radii to completely measure the circumference. And it’s the “little more” part that has been vexing mathematicians for the last ten thousand years. Petr Beckmann’s A History of Pi (originally written in 1971) is a unique look at the social, scientific, and mathematical history of this strange constant.

Ostensibly this book is about the evolution of how pi is conceived and used in mathematics and science, and indeed, you’ll get that. The author traces calculations from the dawn of Homo sapiens to the modern day computational methods. There’s the standard Egypt to Aristotle to Newton to Euler to computer timeline (with a good foray into Chinese mathematics included) with plenty of illustrations and geometric proofs to satisfy the numerically minded.

But then the wheels fall off the wagon. Amid all these wonderful proofs and historical oddities, the author can’t seem to go a single chapter without slighting some nationality, historical figure, or group of peoples. You have to watch out for his unapologetic stance towards just about everybody. He calls out Aristotle for his dullness, the Romans for their engineering backwards-ness, and the Egyptians for their politics. You’ll come for the math, but you’ll stay for the rants. They actually make this book worth reading. It’s as if Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh decided to write a book about the history of the circle. Beckmann’s Eastern European bluntness is all at once refreshing, hilarious, and a bit outdated. It may offend a few people, but it does serve to break up the dryness of pure math history. If you can stomach a little Archie Bunker-style look into the uses of pi, then this book will make for a hum-dinger of a read.