Bookshelf update

September 17, 2009

Spent far too much money in bookshops during a recent visit to Hay on Wye – but heroically avoided splashing out on a beautiful set of Pope’s translation of the Iliad (although at £450, temptation wasn’t that hard to resist).

But among the bargains I did snap up were Mario Livio’s The Equation that Couldn’t Be Solved, an account of the profound societal changes wrought by a special class of equation, called the quintic (containing fifth powers, as opposed to the quadratic, which contains squares).
While there are formulas and methods for solving quadratics and equations containing third and fourth powers, the quintic resolutely evaded solution until the development of Galois theory – this divided quintics into those which could be solved factorisation and those which could not.

The story of the precocious, enigmatic Evariste Galois [new window] lies at the heart of this book. Marcus du Sautoy dramatically opens a lecture with the sound of the gunshot that killed him in a duel when he was just 20. Galois had stayed up the night before, feverishly scribbling into a notebook the mathematical insights he feared would die with him the next morning.

Add to my haul from Hay a couple of copies of Swinburne’s 1886 Ballads, a first edition of Cocteau’s Diary of a Film, and a collection of essays by Kenneth Burke, and it was a fairly successful mini break!

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