Home / Arts / Books / Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World (Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux), by Amir Alexander
Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World (Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux), by Amir Alexander

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In 1632 an elite panel of Jesuits condemned a mathematical concept they saw as pernicious: the idea that a continuous line is composed of distinct, infinitely tiny points. To Jesuits and conservative thinkers, the existence of the infinitely tiny shattered their picture of a rational, ordered cosmos (and political systems ostensibly modeled on that order) by elevating uncertainty and paradox. But the theory survived, giving rise to calculus and engineering breakthroughs that made possible electric motors, radio and airplanes. Historian Amir Alexander writes with understanding of all actors in the controversy. He asserts that Protestant England rose to world prominence because it was faster to adopt the new mathematics than Roman Catholic Europe, thereby becoming “a model for political pluralism and economic success.” England’s economic ascendance was also based on such old-fashioned ideas as the slave trade and exploitation of conquered territories, yet Alexander makes a good case for the importance of ideas in shaping history.