A History of Pi, by Petr Beckmann, ISBN 0880294183
Four out of five stars
This book earns five stars for the explanations of the history how the knowledge of the ratio of the circumference of a circle to the diameter (π) progressed. The rating was reduced due to the inclusion of several snarky and otherwise irrelevant comments regarding politics and the actions of governments.
For reasons that have never been understood, π has received far more attention than all of the other constants. Even though other numbers, such as e, the base of the natural logarithms, are just as important in mathematics, they have not received the attention that π has. Beckmann does an excellent job of tracing the accuracy to which π is known as well as the many places where it has appeared as a component.
There is also a section describing some of the people convinced that they have squared the circle, despite it having been proven that it cannot be done. Underwood Dudley did the mathematical world a favor when he coined the phrase “Mathematical Cranks” to describe such people. There is also a section on the attempt by the Indiana State Legislature in 1897 to decree the value of pi. The bill unanimously passed the Indiana House of Representatives before it was permanently tabled.
The political viewpoint of the author is summarized well in the last paragraph of the content on the DJ describing the author.
“He also publishes a monthly pro-science, pro-technology, pro-free enterprise newsletter ‘Access to Energy,’ in which he promotes the viewpoint that clean energy can be made plentiful, but that access to it is blocked by government interference and environmental paranoia.”
Snippets of historical commentary similar to the tone of this passage are inserted throughout the book.
Pi has received more than its deserved amount of attention down through history, making its history extensive and long. Beckmann has developed a readable account of how knowledge of the number and its value has been explored by the greats and some not so greats.