Being a Professional Mathematician

Books about Mathematicians

There have been many recent books for the general reader about mathematicians and doing mathematics. Some are by mathematicians, and some are by writers outside the subject. In either case they can be the source of insights into the practise of mathematics, although of course there are issues concerning how representative of the profession a particular example might be.

This is simply an annotated list of (generally) recent books about recent and contemporary mathematicians and doing mathematics, with some annotations suggesting issues to think about while reading the book.

G.H. Hardy,A Mathematician's Apology (Cambridge University Press: first published 1940, frequently reissued.)
The book is usually published with an introduction by the writer C.P. Snow. Wikipedia says that A Mathematician’s Apology reflects Hardy's "increasing depression at the wane of his own mathematical powers." ('s_Apology) But the mathematician Peter Neumann argues that Snow's preface has coloured the way in which Hardy's text comes across to many readers, focusing on the negative aspects of what is largely a joyous celebration of a mathematical life and the beauty of mathematics. Do you agree?

Marcus du Sautoy, Finding Moonshine: A Mathematician’s Journey Through Symmetry (Fourth Estate, 2008)
A diary of a year in the life of a contemporary mathematician.

Ian Stewart, Letters to a young mathematician (Basic, 2006)
Strongly recommended - the letters offer advice and insights to a fictional young mathematician as she goes through her mathematical studies.

Reuben Hersh and Vera John-Steiner, Loving + Hating Mathematics: Challenging the Myths of Mathematical Life (Princeton, 2011)
A very entertaining, wide-ranging book which looks at the culture of mathematics, issues regarding equal opportunities with respect to race, gender and age, and issues in maths education.

Peter Byrne, The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III: Multiple Universes, Mutual Assured Destruction, and the Meltdown of a Nuclear Family (Oxford University Press, 2010)
A biography of the quantum theorist whose subsequent career included Cold War game theory, the book perhaps makes too much of his allegedly dysfunctional family life but gives a fascinating picture of a mathematical career.

Paul Hoffman,The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdős and the Search for Mathematical Truth (Fourth Estate, 1998)
A very entertaining biography of the great Paul Erdős. What does the focus on an eccentric mathematician do for the public image of mathematics and its practitioners?

Masha Gessen, Perfect Rigour: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century (Icon, 2011)
About Grigori Perelman and his proof of the Poincaré Conjecture, with insights into the late Soviet mathematical system. Once again, is it the case that the mathematicians who are chosen to be the subjects of biography are the most eccentric? If so, does it matter?

Alexander Masters,The Genius in my Basement: the Biography of a Happy Man (Fourth Estate, 2011)
This new book about the group theorist Simon Norton has been well reviewed in the literary press. While sympathetic to its subject, it makes no attempt to hide his eccentricities. Is it fair? Does it help the public image of mathematics?

Andrew Hodges, Alan Turing: the Enigma (most recent edition Vintage, 2012)
A biography of Alan Turing which has received great critical acclaim since its first publication in 1983.

Graham Farmelo, The strangest man: the hidden life of Paul Dirac, quantum genius (Faber and Faber, 2009)
An excellent recent biography of the mathematician Paul Dirac.

Loren Graham and Jean-Michel Kantor, Naming Infinity: A True Story of Religious Mysticism and Mathematical Creativity (Belknap, 2009)
A book which argues that human elements influence the development of mathematics. Covers a wide range of topics: the chapter “Lusitania and After”, about the Moscow Mathematical School in Soviet times, is particularly effective in showing how human factors affect mathematics.

Simon Singh: Fermat’s Last Theorem: The story of a riddle that confounded the world's greatest minds for 358 years (Fourth Estate, reissue 2002)
An account of one of the biggest mathematical stories of recent times.

Apostolos Doxiadis,Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture (Faber & Faber, most recent edition 2011)
A 1992 novel about doing mathematics. At the time of publication the publishers offered a million dollars for a proof of the Goldbach Conjecture within a year. The prize was not awarded.

Apostolos Doxiadis, Christos Papadimitriou and others, Logicomix: an Epic Quest for Truth (Bloomsbury, 2009)
A post-modern graphic novel about Bertrand Russell and mathematical logic.

This project was supported by the MSOR Network, the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications and the Universities of Greenwich and Birmingham as part of the National HE STEM Programme and was completed in May 2012. 

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