The Riemann Hypothesis

THE RIEMANN HYPOTHESIS….A few weeks ago I blogged about a book I had just finished that told the story of a mathematical problem called the Riemann Hypothesis. Why, you might wonder, was I reading this book? Today I’ll tell you.

It goes back to this post from April, where I wrote offhandedly that “I imagine that lunch with John Derbyshire would be quite enjoyable if we stuck to discussions of mathematical puzzles and prime numbers.” This reminded me that Derb was writing a pop math book of some kind, so I searched for it and found out that it was a book about….the Riemann Hypothesis.

I was curious to see what kind of book he might write, so I went off to my local bookstore to buy a copy. It turned out that it hadn’t been released, but I did notice another book on the shelf about the Riemann Hypothesis by a guy named Karl Sabbagh. That seemed like a remarkable coincidence, so I bought that book instead.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, Derb’s book finally came out. I bought it and finished reading it a couple of days ago and it was pretty good. What was most interesting to me was that I had just finished two books on the same arcane subject, but there was almost nothing in common between them. Sabbagh’s book skipped lightly over the actual math and spent a lot of time on current efforts to solve the RH. Derb’s book concentrated on the history of efforts to solve the RH and went into the actual math much more deeply.

In the end, Derb’s book ? for me ? was much better. I like history and I like math, whereas the idiosyncracies of mathematical culture hold only a small attraction for me. If you’re the opposite, Sabbagh’s book is for you. And if you couldn’t care less about any of this stuff, then skip them both.

POSTSCRIPT: Actually, it turns out there’s also a third book published recently about the Riemann Hypothesis: The Music of the Primes, by Marcus du Sautoy. Three popular books on the Riemann Hypothesis within a month! This has got to be a monumental drag for the authors, who were each writing a book with a pretty small audience to begin with and now have to split their audience three ways.

Why did this happen? A few years ago a $1 million prize was offered for solutions to seven different problems, and the Riemann Hypothesis was one of them (and certainly the most famous of them). All three of these guys must have thought this was a good hook for a book (not to mention this guy, who wrote a book about all seven problems.) I guess it wasn’t quite as unique an idea as they thought.

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