Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity

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(as of 02/20/2018 at 16:49 UTC)

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“A gripping guide to the modern taming of the infinite.”―The New York Times. With a new introduction by Neal Stephenson.

Is infinity a valid mathematical property or a meaningless abstraction? David Foster Wallace brings his intellectual ambition and characteristic bravura style to the story of how mathematicians have struggled to understand the infinite, from the ancient Greeks to the nineteenth-century mathematical genius Georg Cantor’s counterintuitive discovery that there was more than one kind of infinity. Smart, challenging, and thoroughly rewarding, Wallace’s tour de force brings immediate and high-profile recognition to the bizarre and fascinating world of higher mathematics. ReviewBefore discussing the merits of David Foster Wallace’s Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity, it is essential to define what the book is not. This volume in the “Great Discoveries” series is not a history of the personalities and social conditions that led to the “discovery” of infinity. Nor is it a narrative fixated on the cultish fear of–and obsession with–the infinite that has seemingly driven mathematicians insane over the centuries. Rather, Everything and More is a surprisingly rigorous march through the 2000 plus years of mathematical research that began with Aristotle; continued through Galileo, Isaac Newton, G.W. Leibniz, Karl Weierstrass, and J.W.R. Dedekind; and culminated in Georg Cantor and his Set Theory. The task Wallace (author of the bestseller Infinite Jest and other fiction) has set himself is enormously challenging: without radically compromising the complexity of the philosophy, metaphysics, or mathematics that underlies the evolving concept of infinity, present the material to a lay audience in a manner that is entertaining. To propel his narrative, Wallace even develops a style that mirrors the mathematical language he probes. One difficulty in his focus on concepts and not a strict human chronology, though, is that his structure is dependent on frequent digressions (especially early on). Patience is required. Wallace demands that his reader walk through the equations, study the graphs and charts, and relearn college-level concepts to follow along on the exploration. Indeed, after one wrenching dip into Zeno’s paradoxes, Wallace spouts at his imagined complaining audience: “Deal.” But the book should be deemed a success. If one grants him the attention he requires, Wallace has made the trip richly rewarding. –Patrick O’Kelley

  • W W Norton Company