Bool Review of is God a Mathematician by Mario Livio

Is God a Mathematician by Mario Livio, © 2009, First Simon and Schuster hardcover edition January 2009.

“Is God a Mathematician?” by Mario Livio has an enticing title.  It appeals to persons of a religious nature, those interested in the concept of God as a philosophical quest, and those who are interested in examining the evidence for God from a scientific-mathematical perspective.

The author, Mario Livio, has had a successful career as a senior astrophysicist and head of the Office of Public Outreach at the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute. He is well qualified to write a book on mathematics which also correlates with philosophy and physics as presently understood. 

In Chapter I, A Mystery, Livio asks the rhetorical question whether God is a mathematician as “presenting a mystery with which some of the most original minds have struggled for centuries-the apparent omnipresence and omnipotent powers of mathematics.”  From this launching proposition he then provides an historical overview of the most famous mathematicians and their mathematical discoveries.

“Is God a Mathematician?” consists of nine chapters which cover the beginnings of mathematics in the geometry of Pythagoras and Euclid.  It progresses through the development of mathematics as it is both applied to astronomy and physics and as theoretical concepts in abstractions of logic by George Boole and Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead.  As a piece of writing it is very clear, organized, and explained with many accompanying charts and diagrams as well as photographs of the mathematicians he writes about. However, there is a lack of originality as many of the stories he recounts of mathematical discoveries and the mathematicians who have discovered them have been retold many times, such as about Galileo and Newton, the Fibonacci series and the Golden Mean.

The bibliography, index, and notes are very complete and helpful to using the book.  In my opinion Livio does the best job in explaining mathematics in their application to the science of genetics and the DNA codes.  The most informative of his mathematical discussions comes at the end of the book after he does an excellent job of explaining, with accompanying diagrams, Knot Theory.  He bridges Knot Theory to String Theory and perhaps this might be one of the most helpful introductions to the development of String Theory for the layperson and beginning student of mathematics.

He disappoints the reader by only mentioning his question about God and mathematics a few more times in the book, and never presents any help for resolving it.  He does not even hint at his own opinion of the deep, complex question he has propounded.  It appears to me that the title is designed to capture attention and the interest of multiple types of experts-from those of a philosophical bent, theoretical sciences and mathematics, and any and all intrigued by the title.  Or, he feels that if the reader faithfully reads and makes an attempt to understand the material he has presented, that the reader will have enough to formulate their own answer. 

“Is God a Mathematician?” does not live up to the expectations of the title.  Of course, you should figure that out before you read it, but a seeker’s enthusiasm to learn more about the propounded question overrides the logic of expecting to find a cosmic answer in a medium-sized book.  You can learn as much from a variety of books on biographies of famous mathematicians, the history of mathematics and histories of the most well known theories and mathematical concepts.  This book is recommended for the layperson or student in  high school who can benefit from an overview of the history of mathematics and the important mathematicians who have contributed to the human compendium of mathematical knowledge.