The Music of the Primes by Marcus du Sautoy is an interesting look at the history of mathematical discoveries surrounding the prime numbers. It’s a tough topic though, and the author’s attempts to make it more palatable to non-mathematicians sometimes backfire.
The problem is that you can’t fully convey the importance and beauty of prime numbers without addressing some pretty complex mathematical issues. While du Sautoy does throw in the odd equation (and I finished the book feeling rather more mathematically accomplished than when I started it) he is obviously trying to keep things as simple as possible, trying to draw in as larger readership as possible. And the result is that all too often it’s very hard to grasp quite what he’s talking about. I’m no maths guru (far from it), but there were times when I found myself wishing he’d added a little more maths to the book, so I could at least try to follow him. All too often though he replaced the maths with rather fragile metaphors (most frequently, referring to the solutions of an the zeta function, an equation in four-dimensional space, as finding the “points at sea level”… which just left me wondering what the sea looks like in four dimensions).
I do feel sorry for Marcus du Sautoy: simplifying a subject which has taxed mathematicians greatest brains for some 200 years is never going to be easy. Never going to be possible, even. At the same time, I couldn’t help thinking that at times his writing could be better. More than once I thought “is this really the new Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science?” Du Sautoy has a much harder topic to explain than his predecessor, Richard Dawkins, but he also doesn’t seem to have quite Dawkins’ skill with prose. Perhaps that will come with time?
Despite all that, it was a fascinating book, a bit of a struggle to get through but I managed it (I often don’t), and by the end I felt that I knew a lot more about prime numbers, number theory, the Riemann hypothesis, and just how important all of this is to cryptography and the future security (or insecurity) of the Internet.