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Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World – Amir Alexander

Thoughts: For a book about the early history of calculus, Infinitesimal was a surprisingly engaging read – Amir Alexander shows that infinitely small quantities were a surprisingly contentious idea, describing the people, conflicts and concepts involved in vivid detail. I was surprised at how, in the later part of the book, science was held up as an opposite approach to mathematics/logic – I'm used to thinking of them as being in very close alignment. If you're interested in the history of mathematics or the history of science, this is likely a good book for you!

(The notes below are not a summary of the book, but rather raw notes - whatever I thought, at the time, might be worth remembering.)

Alexander, Amir. 2014. Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World. Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


Part I: The War Against Disorder: The Jesuits Against the Infinitely Small

1. The Children of Ignatius

2. Mathematical Order

3. Mathematical Disorder

4. “Destroy or Be Destroyed”: The War on the Infinitely Small

5. The Battle of the Mathematicians

Part II: Leviathan and the Infinitesimal

6. The Coming of Leviathan

7. Thomas Hobbes, Geometer

8. Who Was John Wallis?

9. Mathematics for a New World

Epilogue: Two Modernities

Posted: May 25, 2021. Last updated: Aug 31, 2023.