Ball, a British comedian and pop-math celebrity, charms in this lively, accessible history of mathematics. Relating anecdotes and historical points with equal enthusiasm, Ball begins his work in the ancient world with descriptions of Egyptian papyri showing how to calculate the amount of stone needed to build a pyramid and clay tablets from Sumer and Babylon recording everyday business transactions. Ancient Greeks such as Pythagoras, with his work on music theory and geometry, and Archimedes, of the “eureka” moment and array of siege weapons, come to life in Ball’s account. Stories about astronomer Tycho Brahe’s prosthetic nose, Leonardo da Vinci’s restless inventiveness, and Isaac Newton’s petty feud with rival scientist Robert Hooke reveal personal details about people who are often just names in a textbook. Ball’s book brims with other oddball facts: for example, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, and Ada Augusta Byron (Countess of Lovelace and the “world’s first computer programmer”) were all diehard fans of Euclid’s Elements. Adelard of Bath, a 12th-century English monk, traveled the Middle East in disguise to learn Arabian mathematics; Florence Nightingale invented pie charts. Ball also explores math contributions from ancient China, India, and Central America. Excellent as an introduction to the field, this is a brisk, well-rounded history of mathematics and its practitioners.

Publishers Weekly (USA) October 2017


Like many people of a certain age, I have fond memories of tuning in to watch Johnny Ball enthusiastically extolling the virtues of maths and science; succeeding where our schoolteachers had failed and actually making these subjects fun. Although decades have passed since those classic TV shows, his latest book proves that he has lost none of his passion and enthusiasm for his subject.

The book itself is certainly an ambitious one; a brief history of all things mathematical, squeezed into 470 pages. The result is a potted history of the world, starting with the Egyptians and then working its way through the Sumerians, Greeks, Romans and subsequent civilizations up to the present day. As we read about the discoveries and developments over the centuries, we see that mathematics is the central thread weaving everything together. Advances in the fields of architecture, art, astronomy, finance, science, transport and engineering simply would not have been possible without the mathematical principles that underpin them.

We learn about some of the greatest minds the world has even known: Archimedes, Pythagoras, Newton and Einstein; to name a few. But what about lesser-known heroes who still made a valuable contribution to mathematical history? People like Heron, Hipparchus, Mendeleev and many others made discoveries that changed the world and yet we barely know their names. This book gives them all a chance to shine.

It is amazing to see how far the human race has come in understanding the world around us and even our place in the universe. It is fascinating to see how these great minds arrived at their conclusions, and how sometimes progress moved backwards, as well as forwards. This is certainly true when it comes to the ancient concept that the Earth was the centre of the universe; an idea so entrenched in the minds of people that it was difficult to break free and think outside of the box, as it were.

Throughout the book, Johnny keeps his trademark enthusiasm, which shines through on each page. There is even an index at the back of the book that explores some of the mathematical ideas in more depth, which he aptly calls the WOW Factor Mathematical Index. This is an author who is truly excited and inspired by his specialist subject, and it rubs off on his readers.

I thoroughly enjoyed my brief trip through history and although maths was never my strongest subject, I do have a newfound respect for it; so many of the things we take for granted are due to mathematical discoveries, including the computer that I am typing on right now!

 Louise Jones (UK) October 2017