John Napier

Julian Havil has written a new book John Napier: Life, Logarithms, and Legacy.

I haven’t read more than the introduction yet — a review copy arrived just yesterday — but I imagine it’s good judging by who wrote it. Havil’s book Gamma is my favorite popular math book. (Maybe I should say “semi-popular.” Havil’s books have more mathematical substance than most popular books, but they’re still aimed at a wide audience. I think he strikes a nice balance.) His latest book is a scientific biography, a biography with an unusual number of equations and diagrams.

Napier is best known for his discovery of logarithms. (People debate endlessly whether mathematics is discovered or invented. Logarithms are so natural — pardon the pun — that I say they were discovered. I might describe other mathematical objects, such as Grothendieck’s schemes, as inventions.) He is also known for his work with spherical trigonometry, such as Napier’s mnemonic. Maybe Napier should be known for other things I won’t know about until I finish reading Havil’s book.

2 thoughts on “John Napier

  1. Gamma was a brilliant book, particularly considering it was Havil’s first, and what convinced me to buy anything else he chose to write – thanks for reminding me! Alas, Amazon informs me that the Kindle edition will “be released on October 12, 2014”. There are very few writers who aim their books for… mathematics enthusiasts who actually want the math, for lack of a better term – Nahin, Dunham, and Maor come to mind, but that’s all I can think of. What other authors do you know who write this class of books this well?

  2. He taught at my high school for 33 years, though after I had left. There’s an an interesting conundrum in “Gamma”. In the index of names “Colin Nutbeam” is listed with reference to page 261. However this is the number of the page in the index where he is listed! I suspect he’s a drinking companion of Havil’s from the Wykeham Arms, a well known and extremely nice pub in Winchester.

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