A Brief History of Infinity

A Brief History of Infinity : The Quest to Think the Unthinkable

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'Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the street to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space.' Douglas Adams, Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy We human beings have trouble with infinity - yet infinity is a surprisingly human subject. Philosophers and mathematicians have gone mad contemplating its nature and complexity - yet it is a concept routinely used by schoolchildren. Exploring the infinite is a journey into paradox. Here is a quantity that turns arithmetic on its head, making it feasible that 1 = 0. Here is a concept that enables us to cram as many extra guests as we like into an already full hotel. Most bizarrely of all, it is quite easy to show that there must be something bigger than infinity - when it surely should be the biggest thing that could possibly be. Brian Clegg takes us on a fascinating tour of that borderland between the extremely large and the ultimate that takes us from Archimedes, counting the grains of sand that would fill the universe, to the latest theories on the physical reality of the infinite. Full of unexpected delights, whether St Augustine contemplating the nature of creation, Newton and Leibniz battling over ownership of calculus, or Cantor struggling to publicise his vision of the transfinite, infinity's fascination is in the way it brings together the everyday and the extraordinary, prosaic daily life and the esoteric. Whether your interest in infinity is mathematical, philosophical, spiritual or just plain curious, this accessible book offers a stimulating and entertaining read.show more

Product details

  • Paperback | 272 pages
  • 128 x 196 x 18mm | 220g
  • Little, Brown Book Group
  • Robinson Publishing
  • London, United Kingdom
  • English
  • 1841196509
  • 9781841196503
  • 54,138

Review Text

This curiously intriguing work might also, perhaps more poetically, have been dubbed 'the limits to infinity' or indeed, to quote Buzz Lightyear (as Clegg does), 'infinity and beyond'. Or both. For it doesn't take much delving to learn that infinity is full of paradoxes - and strange enough, according to Clegg, to have driven at least two great mathematicians over the edge into insanity. It is probably fair to say that unless you have a reasonably mathematical mind this book could take you there too. But that should not deter you, for there are great rewards in these pages. The concept of infinity inevitably involves built-in contradictions: Clegg's analogy of trying to work out the truth when someone says, 'I'm lying' gives a good idea of the mental twists involved. Yet it's also so simplistic that anyone can grasp its meaning - as long as you can grasp the meaning of 'finite' and the meaning of 'not'. Infinity has been a source for almost infinite speculation from the early Greek mathematicians onwards and has variously been greeted with awe, suspicion and denial; Clegg describes it as 'the interface between mathematics and reality'. And goodness knows maths needs one - he relates in some detail the enormous efforts which mathematicians throughout history have put into trying to solve conundrums largely of their own invention. One can't help thinking that the ancients had an inordinate fondness for inconsequential puzzles - yet often just as the reader is thinking 'does it matter?', Clegg shows us that indeed it does. Clegg, author of Light Years and The First Scientist, used to work for British Airways examining cutting-edge technologies and now runs his own creative consultancy business. Here he has done an excellent job of making the most complex concepts accessible while allowing their mystery to continue to shimmer just out of focus. We start to understand, perhaps, why the linkage of God with the infinite occurs in almost all modern religions, and yet why the church should have felt the need so often to stamp on closer investigation into scientific truths. (Kirkus UK)show more

About Brian Clegg

BRIAN CLEGG is a prize-winning science writer with a physics degree from Cambridge and a masters in the mathematical discipline operational research. He has written over 20 science books and articles for newspapers and magazines from The Observer and Wall Street Journal to BBC Focus and Playboy. He lives in Wiltshire, England, with his wife and two children.show more

Our customer reviews

I really enjoyed this book, my only criticism is that is just seems to go on and on.show more
by michael rein