Geometry and the Imagination

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AMS Chelsea Pub., 1999 - Mathematics - 357 pages
2 Reviews
This remarkable book has endured as a true masterpiece of mathematical exposition. There are few mathematics books that are still so widely read and continue to have so much to offer - even after more than half a century has passed! The book is overflowing with mathematical ideas, which are always explained clearly and elegantly, and above all, with penetrating insight. It is a joy to read, both for beginners and experienced mathematicians. 'Hilbert and Cohn-Vossen' is full of interesting facts, many of which you wish you had known before. It's also likely that you have heard those facts before, but surely wondered where they could be found. The book begins with examples of the simplest curves and surfaces, including thread constructions of certain quadrics and other surfaces.The chapter on regular systems of points leads to the crystallographic groups and the regular polyhedra in $\mathbb{R}^3$. In this chapter, they also discuss plane lattices. By considering unit lattices, and throwing in a small amount of number theory when necessary, they effortlessly derive Leibniz's series: $\pi/4 = 1 - 1/3 1/5 - 1/7 - \ldots$. In the section on lattices in three and more dimensions, the authors consider sphere-packing problems, including the famous Kepler problem.One of the most remarkable chapters is 'Projective Configurations'. In a short introductory section, Hilbert and Cohn-Vossen give perhaps the most concise and lucid description of why a general geometer would care about projective geometry and why such an ostensibly plain setup is truly rich in structure and ideas. Here, we see regular polyhedra again, from a different perspective. One of the high points of the chapter is the discussion of Schlafli's Double-Six, which leads to the description of the 27 lines on the general smooth cubic surface. As is true throughout the book, the magnificent drawings in this chapter immeasurably help the reader.A particularly intriguing section in the chapter on differential geometry is Eleven Properties of the Sphere. Which eleven properties of such a ubiquitous mathematical object caught their discerning eye and why? Many mathematicians are familiar with the plaster models of surfaces found in many mathematics departments. The book includes pictures of some of the models that are found in the Gottingen collection. Furthermore, the mysterious lines that mark these surfaces are finally explained!The chapter on kinematics includes a nice discussion of linkages and the geometry of configurations of points and rods that are connected and, perhaps, constrained in some way. This topic in geometry has become increasingly important in recent times, especially in applications to robotics. This is another example of a simple situation that leads to a rich geometry. It would be hard to overestimate the continuing influence Hilbert-Cohn-Vossen's book has had on mathematicians of this century. It surely belongs in the 'pantheon' of great mathematics books.

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About the author (1999)

Born in Konigsberg, Germany, David Hilbert was professor of mathematics at Gottingen from 1895 to1930. Hilbert was among the earliest adherents of Cantor's new transfinite set theory. Despite the controversy that arose over the subject, Hilbert maintained that "no one shall drive us from this paradise (of the infinite)" (Hilbert, "Uber das Unendliche," Mathematische Annalen [1926]). It has been said that Hilbert was the last of the great universalist mathematicians and that he was knowledgeable in every area of mathematics, making important contributions to all of them (the same has been said of Poincare). Hilbert's publications include impressive works on algebra and number theory (by applying methods of analysis he was able to solve the famous "Waring's Problem"). Hilbert also made many contributions to analysis, especially the theory of functions and integral equations, as well as mathematical physics, logic, and the foundations of mathematics. His work of 1899, Grundlagen der Geometrie, brought Hilbert's name to international prominence, because it was based on an entirely new understanding of the nature of axioms. Hilbert adopted a formalist view and stressed the significance of determining the consistency and independence of the axioms in question. In 1900 he again captured the imagination of an international audience with his famous "23 unsolved problems" of mathematics, many of which became major areas of intensive research in this century. Some of the problems remain unresolved to this day. At the end of his career, Hilbert became engrossed in the problem of providing a logically satisfactory foundation for all of mathematics. As a result, he developed a comprehensive program to establish the consistency of axiomatized systems in terms of a metamathematical proof theory. In 1925, Hilbert became ill with pernicious anemia---then an incurable disease. However, because Minot had just discovered a treatment, Hilbert lived for another 18 years.

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