The Equation that Couldn't Be Solved : How Mathematical Genius Discovered the Language of Symmetry
What do the music of J. S. Bach, the basic forces of nature, Rubik's Cube, and the selection of mates have in common? They are all characterized by certain symmetries. Symmetry is the concept that bridges the gap between science and art, between the world of theoretical physics and the everyday world we see around us. Yet the "language" of symmetry--group theory in mathematics--emerged from a most unlikely source: an equation that couldn't be solved.
Over the millennia, mathematicians solved progressively more difficult algebraic equations until they came to what is known as the quintic equation. For several centuries it resisted solution, until two mathematical prodigies independently discovered that it could not be solved by the usual methods, thereby opening the door to group theory. These young geniuses, a Norwegian named Niels Henrik Abel and a Frenchman named Evariste Galois, both died tragically. Galois, in fact, spent the night before his fatal duel (at the age of twenty) scribbling another brief summary of his proof, at one point writing in the margin of his notebook "I have no time."
The story of the equation that couldn't be solved is a story of brilliant mathematicians and a fascinating account of how mathematics illuminates a wide variety of disciplines. In this lively, engaging book, Mario Livio shows in an easily accessible way how group theory explains the symmetry and order of both the natural and the human-made worlds.
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Simon & Schuster
September 13, 2005
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Excerpt from The Equation that Couldn't Be Solved by Mario Livio
An inkblot on a piece of paper is not particularly attractive to the eye, but if you fold the paper before the ink dries, you may get something that looks like figure 1 that is much more intriguing. In fact, the interpretation of similar inkblots forms the basis for the famous Rorschach test developed in the 1920s by the Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach. The declared purpose of the test is to somehow elicit the hidden fears, wild fantasies, and deeper thoughts of the viewers interpreting the ambiguous shapes. The actual value of the test as an "x-ray of the mind" is vehemently debated in psychological circles. As Emory University psychologist Scott Lilienfeld once put it, "Whose mind, that of the client or the examiner?" Nevertheless, there is no denial of the fact that images such as that in figure 1 convey some sort of attractive and fascinating impression. Why?
Is it because the human body, most animals, and so many human artifacts possess a similar bilateral symmetry? And why do all those zoological features and creations of the human imagination exhibit such a symmetry in the first place?
Most people perceive harmonious compositions such as Botticelli's Birth of Venus as symmetrical. Art historian Ernst H. Gombrich even notes that the "liberties which Botticelli took with nature in order to achieve a graceful outline add to the beauty and harmony of the design." Yet mathematicians will tell you that the arrangements of colors and forms in that painting are not symmetric at all in the mathematical sense. Conversely, most nonmathematical viewers do not perceive the pattern in figure 3 as symmetrical, even though it actually is symmetrical according to the formal mathematical definition. So what is symmetry really? What role, if any, does it play in perception? How is it related to our aesthetic sensibility? In the scientific realm, why has symmetry become such a pivotal concept in our ideas about the cosmos around us and in the fundamental theories attempting to explain it? Since symmetry spans such a wide range of disciplines, what "language" and what "grammar" do we use to describe and characterize symmetries and their attributes, and how was that universal language invented? On a lighter note, can symmetry provide an answer to the all-important question posed in the title of one of the songs of rock star Rod Stewart -- "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?"