David Foster Wallace: Everything And More: A Compact History Of Infinity

David Foster Wallace: Everything And More: A Compact History Of Infinity

David Foster Wallace is a scarily smart writer, but even more imposing than grappling with his intellect is reconciling how much fun he can be when contemplating almost any subject: tennis, linguistics, dependency, diving, cruises, suicide, and so on. Math serves as the focus of Everything And More, and though Wallace makes a show of not skimping on the hairy particulars, he also goes a long way toward showcasing his subject as a manifestation of ideas no less human or compelling than those behind art, science, faith, or philosophy. Few writers could maintain such an air while crawling through calculus proofs, but Wallace measures up to the task by keeping one eye on the numbers and the other on how those numbers play amid the thought-currents that surround them. Part of the new non-fiction series "Great Discoveries," Everything And More looks at 19th-century German mathematician Georg Cantor, who changed infinity from a counterintuitive red herring to a surprisingly sensible mathematical property that could be accounted for and stared down with conviction. The story starts way back with the ancient Greeks, who lifted math from its real-world applications to the ethereal realm of abstraction. Careful consideration of what numbers actually "mean" grounds Everything And More in philosophy, but the book also shows how the logic behind math's formal systems helped shape the intellect through the ages. Prime paradox bait, the idea of infinity courts two conflicting ideas in that it's both big and small–that is, series can be infinitely continuous and infinitely divisible without throwing much of a bone either way. Figuring out how to handle such friction, or whether notions so abstract are even worth tangling with, haunted the evolution of math from finger-counting to calculus. Cantor's method for making sense of it all takes a while (and no shortage of brain pain) to work through, but Wallace's hand-holding tour points out lots of fascinating attractions along the way. Wallace maintains an awed sense of math's crinkling dimensions, but also traces the strange ambiguities and equivocations cooked up by intellectual giants whose "thoughts and feelings are really just chemical transfers in 2.8 pounds of electrified pâté." Only the scantest biographical details sketch out Cantor's life, but a deep-focus look at his work makes Everything And More a sort of aesthetic appreciation of math. The abstract proofs are difficult and crushingly dense in spots, but the boggled distance they command only helps illuminate the ways that logic bends and curves, and ultimately snaps into place with the right mix of guiding hand and watchful eye.

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