615dsjiz3blI found this book in a branch of Cash Converters in Lisbon. Actually, scratch that – I found the 1966 edition in a Cash Converters in Lisbon. However the cover of mine is rather beaten up so I borrowed this image from Amazon. You can go buy that edition from Amazon if you wish – that’s not an affiliate link, by the way, as having moved out of the UK they don’t let me do that any more. But I digress…

The early chapters of the book are fairly easy to follow. This is probably because there’s not a lot of change in quite a lot of time, and it’s fairly easy(ish) to document that for the general mathematically ignorant (such as me). Generally speaking even my high level of mathematical ignorance is capable of coping with zero, and negative numbers and so on.

If there are criticisms of the book, they’re pretty much the ones that the author himself flags in the introduction – grouping China, India and Egypt into “Oriental Mathematics” as a chapter title might be considered somewhat insensitive, even nowadays (the original edition was published in 1948), but my 1966 edition flags this up as essentially being a “known issue” with the book and something that needs fixing, even if the author’s not sure how to do it.

Wikipedia tells me that Struik was a Marxist theoretician. Which is interesting in itself, but not really relevant to this book – it doesn’t mention Marx. But that’s not unusual, there’s plenty of people don’t get mentioned in here, and – to be fair – that might be a good thing.

Despite the book (at least in my edition) stopping at roughly the beginning of the 20th Century, it just gets more and more dense as time goes on, the innovations and discoveries piling up faster and faster. There’s more about Newton and Liebniz than George Boole, for example – and I’m probably more familiar with Boole’s work than anybody since Liebniz (as that’s pretty much as hard as my A-level maths got, or at least that’s as hard as I remember.)

The problem for me reading this is that I haven’t really heard of many of the people later than Liebniz, except maybe in very vague passing, so the later part becomes a blur of “Hilbert… syzygy, heard of that, I think, what is it, I’ll check Wikipiedia – ah I see it’s… ok, never mind, moving on… Boole, yes I know him, heard of him I know he’s… wait, he’s gone again, I feel thick again…”

If you’re a professional mathematician, or even a keen amateur, then I’m guessing this is essential reading (or at least, the later editions are). For everyone else, it starts well, but don’t expect to get a lot from the later chapters.

(Full disclosure – I also did a Goodreads review)

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