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Mathematicians in Bologna 1851–1960

Salvatore Coen, editor
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Charles Ashbacher
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In 1861, Italy, minus the Papal States, was united into a single country. Thus, the opening year of this history of Italian mathematics is a logical choice, at least in the political sense. In the century from this time until the final year of coverage there was a World War, decades of fascist control under Mussolini that included racial laws, another World War and then the establishment of a semi-stable republic. Through it all, mathematics continued and the premier mathematicians in the country worked to make significant contributions.

Bologna is a city in northern Italy and the University of Bologna is the oldest university in the world, founded in 1088. Therefore, it is natural that it would have been where the best mathematical scholars would reside. This is their story. While the political background is mentioned when necessary, the emphasis is on the history of the mathematics and the people that created it.

The book is a collection of short papers, sometimes with an emphasis on the historical facts and at other times with an emphasis on the mathematics. There is no attempt to lighten the mathematical content: when it is necessary to cite advanced mathematical formulas, they are included.

Mathematicians quite naturally are a social lot, willing to write letters and share ideas, therefore some of the entries involve correspondence between mathematicians. The letters appear in the language in which they were written, with no translations or detailed explanations, so those that do not understand the language will remain unenlightened as to their contents.

Mathematical histories often tend to be light on the mathematical details, the editors preferring to try to increase readership at the expense of mathematical rigor. This is not the case here; many of the articles contain very high level mathematics to complete the explanations. In many ways this book is an existence proof of the thesis that wars and politics come, go and change, but mathematics and its practitioners endure. 

Charles Ashbacher splits his time between consulting with industry in projects involving math and computers, teaching college classes and co-editing The Journal of Recreational Mathematics. In his spare time, he reads about these things and helps his daughter in her lawn care business.