"Elegant" Book Wins Mathematical Prize
Professor writes best-selling book about a landmark mathematical formula
February 2, 2010
David Richeson, associate professor of mathematics, holds up a copy of his book "Euler's Gem."
Anyone who wouldn’t place “humorous,” “beautiful” and “best-seller” in the same sentence as “mathematics” hasn’t read Dave Richeson’s book, Euler’s Gem: The Polyhedron Formula and the Birth of Topology. This fascinating and accessible approach to Leonhard Euler's landmark formula has attracted rave reviews and awards.
Most recently, Richeson, associate professor of mathematics and department chair at Dickinson, received the Mathematical Association of America's 2010 book prize. Coincidentally, the prize is named in honor of Euler, a peer of Euclid, Pythagoras, Archimedes and Newton who is, arguably, one of the most prolific and influential mathematicians of all time.
The prize is awarded to writers of outstanding books about mathematics, based on clarity of exposition and the degree to which the book promises to enhance and enrich the public’s view of math. Euler’s Gem hit the mark.
In language usually reserved for great literary works, the judging committee called Euler’s Gem “elegant, concise and surprising,” stating that previous attempts to explain the beauty of Euler’s simple formula and to explore its depth “pale by comparison to Richeson’s extraordinary narrative,” which features descriptions that are “amazingly friendly” and with prose that is “a joy to read.”
That's partially due to the author's passion for his subject. “There is so much beautiful mathematics that most people never see ... Euler's formula is a prime example,” said Richeson. “It is simple enough to explain to a child, yet it may not be seen until graduate school. It is especially wonderful because it is straightforward, yet has deep meaning and many important mathematical consequences. In one survey of mathematicians, it was voted the second-most beautiful theorem of all time.”
The book is an Amazon.com best-seller—a noteworthy achievement for an academic work by a first-time author.
That's because the book appeals both to professional mathematicians and to readers that Richeson calls “mathematical enthusiasts.” This group includes motivated high-school students, college students and others who want to deepen their understanding of mathematics as well as readers who simply want to learn something new.
“I spent a lot of time thinking about how to write about advanced topics in a way that someone with no background could understand. As an example, I created more than 150 diagrams to make the arguments as visual as possible,” Richeson said.
True to the Dickinsonian approach to the liberal arts and sciences, Richeson collaborated across other disciplines in writing his book. Associate Professor of Classical Languages Chris Francese assisted in translating Euler’s paper from its original Latin; German major Anne Maiale '08 contributed translations from Euler’s native language as Richeson’s Dana research assistant. The Dana program enables students to assist in faculty scholarly and creative research.