Book Review of Paul Nahin's "An Imaginary Tale: The Story of √-1"

Started by Rick Lyons 5 years ago4 replieslatest reply 5 years ago316 views
For those of you who enjoyed reading the book "An Imaginary Tale: The Story of √-1", by Paul Nahin, here's a very interesting and revealing book review by Brian Blank (professor of mathematics at Washington University in St. Louis).

Book review of 'An Imaginary Tale'.pdf


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Reply by Coop.aa1wwMarch 9, 2018


I loved this book (mine is the leftmost edition pictured in your informative post).  Yeah, SQRT(-1) is to be avoided but this book is written in a very conversation manner.  To me, the reviewer seems to be overdoing a bit.  He doesn't seem to like Oliver Heaviside and surely Paul Nahin details Heaviside's extremely cantankerous nature.  But let's not forget:

  • Operational Calculus
  • G = 0 and the 4 equation form of Maxwell's (20) Equations
  • The incremental LCR (or LCG) model of a transmission line and the concomitant Telegrapher's Equation.  William Thompson (Lord Kelvin) agreed on the capacitive element of T-Lines but in those days nobody was seeing an inductive component.  I think it would have been a while before someone came along and gave that degree of insight in T-Lines which, by the way, helped avoid burning out any more trans-Atlantic cables.

There is a nice grouping of books out there on PI, e, i, Gamma, ...

They make for insightful reading.  Another author I recommend is William Dunham especially with respect to Euler.


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Reply by Rick LyonsMarch 9, 2018

Hi Coop. Regarding Heaviside, I agree with you and I believe he deserves to be at least as famous as, say, Brad Pitt or George Clooney. To appreciate Heaviside's contributions see the "Innovations and Discoveries" section at:

You mentioned "a nice grouping of books out there." For years I've had the following list on my computer:

"e - The Story of a Number" - Eli Maor
"A History of Pi" - Petr Beckman
"An Imaginary Tale - The Story of sqrt(-1)" - Paul J. Nahin
"The Nothing That Is" - Robert Kaplan
"Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea" - Charles Seife

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Reply by jms_nhMarch 11, 2018

Don't forget "Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity" by David Foster Wallace

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Reply by Coop.aa1wwMarch 11, 2018

@Rick_Lyons and @jms_nh,

Very good suggestions.  Here are a couple more (from my unread pile):

  • Gamma, Exploring Euler's Constant, ISBN 9780691178103
  • The Mystery of the Aleph: Mathematics, the Kabbalah, and the Search for Infinity by Amir D. Azcel     ISBN 9780743422994