12 is the igibum, 5 the igum


The quintic is the Snark of mathematics. It was hunted across Europe until it was finally killed off by a 26-year-old Norwegian called Niels Abel, who starved to death shortly after. But the quintic was a Boojum, you see. Unlike the equations that had gone before, Abel proved that it has no general solution. The reason why this is the case, as the French student Everiste Galois showed, is infinitely more important than the failure of the result. A day after he wrote down the explanation for this boojumish fact, he was shot dead, in a duel, aged twenty-one.

Historians of mathematics are always complaining that mathematicians are a dry and uninteresting lot; but it’s not so. Algebra has been powered by numerous astonishing characters and absurd situations. The beautiful virgin Hypatia, the first known woman mathematician (there are only three, in this book), was pulled from her chariot by an enraged mob and had her flesh scraped from her bones with oyster shells. (Women and algebra have not always been kind to each other. George Boole, who developed an algebraic system for logic, died because his wife threw buckets of icy water over him when he was in bed with a chill.) Alexandre Grothendieck is the most recent curious fellow: in his prime he knocked down policemen and won the top mathematics prize, the Fields Medal. Now he lives in total retirement in the Pyrenees, pondering how to survive on dandelion soup.

more from Literary Review here.