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On August 10, 1632, five men in flowing black robes convened in a somber Roman palazzo to pass judgment on a deceptively simple proposition: that a continuous line is composed of distinct and infinitely tiny parts. With the stroke of a pen the Jesuit fathers banned the doctrine of infinitesimals, announcing that it could never be taught or even mentioned. The concept was deemed dangerous and subversive, a threat to the belief that the world was an orderly place, governed by a strict and unchanging set of rules. If infinitesimals were ever accepted, the Jesuits feared, the entire world would be plunged into chaos.
In Infinitesimal, the award-winning historian Amir Alexander exposes the deep-seated reasons behind the rulings of the Jesuits and shows how the doctrine persisted, becoming the foundation of calculus and much of modern mathematics and technology. Indeed, not everyone agreed with the Jesuits. Philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians across Europe embraced infinitesimals as the key to scientific progress, freedom of thought, and a more tolerant society. As Alexander reveals, it wasn’t long before the two camps set off on a war that pitted Europe’s forces of hierarchy and order against those of pluralism and change.
The story takes us from the bloody battlefields of Europe’s religious wars and the English Civil War and into the lives of the greatest mathematicians and philosophers of the day, including Galileo and Isaac Newton, Cardinal Bellarmine and Thomas Hobbes, and Christopher Clavius and John Wallis. In Italy, the defeat of the infinitely small signaled an end to that land’s reign as the cultural heart of Europe, and in England, the triumph of infinitesimals helped launch the island nation on a course that would make it the world’s first modern state.
From the imperial cities of Germany to the green hills of Surrey, from the papal palace in Rome to the halls of the Royal Society of London, Alexander demonstrates how a disagreement over a mathematical concept became a contest over the heavens and the Earth. The legitimacy of popes and kings, as well as our beliefs in human liberty and progressive science, were at stake - the soul of the modern world hinged on the infinitesimal.
Customer ReviewsMost Helpful
By Henry on 09-02-16
An Amazing Listen to intrigue and history. Highly recommended.
A fantastic review of political - mathematical - religious history. Presented so the layperson can understand and follow. The two concepts need to be clearly outlined or perhaps I need to review the text again.
Definitely worth listening to. The book brings sense to some of histories extreme views. It also provides understanding for the great advances in the scientific, political and religious areas.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
By Marino on 09-22-14
An intriguing and underappreciated bit of history
What made the experience of listening to Infinitesimal the most enjoyable?
The best part of any historical work is learning about the parts of history which are normally occluded by time.
What did you like best about this story?
The most fascinating part of the story was certainly its focus on lesser known, yet significant, people of history.
What three words best describe Ira Rosenberg’s voice?
Clear and well-enunciated
If you were to make a film of this book, what would the tag line be?
Sometimes the very small can have a very big effect.
2 of 3 people found this review helpful