[2008-04-29] “The Calculus Wars”

In “The Calculus Wars”, Jason Bardi writes about the bitter fight in the beginning of the 18th century between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz over the right to be known as the inventor of calculus. Since this episode paints an extremely unflattering picture of the two great men, it is either ignored or only mentioned in passing by most authors writing about the history of mathematics.

The book provides a brief biography of each of the two men, including the background in each case that led them to independently invent calculus. It attempts to explain why Newton did not publish his papers on his version of calculus (“fluxions and fluents”) even though he had mentioned it in some of his letters to a few of his contemporaries and had invented it about two decades before Leibniz published his first paper on calculus. It shows how the pride and vanity of these men led them into this fight and how they were not shy of abusing their respective positions to gain an advantage over each other.

The book contains very little mathematics, presumably to avoid scaring off lay people. I think this is a shame - I would have really liked to see some examples of early expositions of the principles behind calculus and the notations used therein. Perhaps this could have been accommodated in a couple of appendices.

The author uses a lot of digressions and digressions within digressions which were quite a bit irritating for me. Though there is a separate appendix containing the bibliography, in most of the places the author does not cite the actual reference used.

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