Dr. Riemann's Zeros

Karl Sabbagh
Karl Sabbagh points out in Dr Riemann's Zeros prime numbers reveal their true magic in combination. Every even number can be obtained by adding together two prime numbers. And all non-primes can be obtained by multiplying two smaller prime numbers. This is a book about mathematics, not about the sorts of calculations and formulae we learned (and promptly forgot) at school. It is about a sphere of endeavour whose "glorious achievements...are less accessible than those of almost any other aspect of human culture." So while, at one level, Sabbagh's book is about how we look for prime numbers, his other, rather mordant accomplishment, is to show how wrong we non-mathematicians are, when we try to imagine what 'real' maths looks like. Sabbagh's own mathematical gifts are just enough to give him glimpses of the subject's beauty. This beauty, he argues, is as real and vivid! as a phrase in music, or a curve in painting--but to perceive it requires a rare sort of imagination. A one-eyed man writing for a blind (non-mathematical) audience, Sabbagh's frustration enlivens his writing and adds tremendous poignancy to his difficult and worthwhile account. Part-biographical and part mathematical, Dr Riemann's Zeros describes a mathematical landscape whose navigation requires so many good ideas, it tests not just the ingenuity of the individual mathematician, but the soundness, communicativeness, and aggregated wisdom of a whole (largely invisible) culture. --Simon Ings

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