Saturday, January 5, 2013

Mystery of Aleph

By Gregory McNamee

The search for infinity, that sublime and barely comprehensible mystery, has exercised both mathematicians and theologians over many generations. Jewish mystics, in particular, labored with elaborate numerological schema to imagine the pure nothingness of infinity, while scientists such as Galileo, the great astronomer, and George Cantor, the inventor of modern set theory (as well as a gifted Shakespearean scholar), brought their training to bear on the unimaginable infinitude of numbers and of space, seeking the key to the universe.

In this sometimes technical but always accessible narrative, Amir Aczel, author of the spirited study Fermat's Last Theorem, contemplates such matters as the Greek philosopher Zeno's several paradoxes; the curious careers of defrocked priests, (literal) mad scientists, and sober scholars whose work helped untangle some of those paradoxes; and the conundrums that modern mathematics has substituted for the puzzles of yore.

To negotiate some of those enigmas requires a belief not unlike faith, Aczel hints, noting, "We may find it hard to believe that an elegant and seemingly very simple system of numbers and operations such as addition and multiplication - elements so intuitive that children learn them at school - should be fraught with holes and logical hurdles." Hard to believe, indeed.

Aczel's book makes for a fine and fun exercise in brain-stretching, while providing a learned survey of the regions where science and religion meet.