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Review of The Music of Pythagoras

Gail Kaplan (Towson State University)

The Music of Pythagoras: How an Ancient Brotherhood Cracked the Code of the Universe and Lit the Path from Antiquity to Outer Space, by Kitty Ferguson, 2008, hardcover, 366 pp., ISBN 9780802716316, $26.95, Walker and Company, New York,

The Music of Pythagoras is an entertaining book with many delightful stories. It is ideal for the reader interested in a journey through portions of the history of mathematics, not scholarly research. Ferguson explains, "Young Pythagoras' journey, as Iamblichus recounted it, was the ancient equivalent of a high-risk modern junior year abroad." It is this amusing style that makes the book fun to read. There are many interesting suggestions to think about; however, the ideas are not possible to verify as the author clearly suggests. "What about a more startling suggestion: that Pythagoras had nothing whatsoever to do with the discovery [of the theorem that bears his name]? Could it be that it was later credited to him only because such legends tend to become associated with famous people?"

Throughout the book mathematical concepts born long ago are connected not only to mathematicians born several centuries after Pythagoras but also to the modern day world. The connections between mathematics and music attributed to Pythagoras are then related to Kepler's work and beyond. The comparison of thinking about squares and cubes of numbers as actual squares of pebbles is related to manipulative beads used in the Montessori classroom. It is these types of connections that make the book an enjoyable read. Yet, as the author herself suggests, "Since the evidence about what . . . Pythagorean mathematics were like is so sparse, we are at a loss to know how authentically Pythagorean this so-called Pythagorean mathematics was."