Sep 122013

A new book A History in Sum: 150 Years of Mathematics at Harvard (1825-1975) has just been published by Harvard.

In the twentieth century, American mathematicians began to make critical advances in a field previously dominated by Europeans. Harvard’s mathematics department was at the center of these developments.A History in Sum is an inviting account of the pioneers who trailblazed a distinctly American tradition of mathematics–in algebraic geometry and topology, complex analysis, number theory, and a host of esoteric subdisciplines that have rarely been written about outside of journal articles or advanced textbooks. The heady mathematical concepts that emerged, and the men and women who shaped them, are described here in lively, accessible prose.

The story begins in 1825, when a precocious sixteen-year-old freshman, Benjamin Peirce, arrived at the College. He would become the first American to produce original mathematics–an ambition frowned upon in an era when professors largely limited themselves to teaching. Peirce’s successors–William Fogg Osgood and Maxime Bôcher–undertook the task of transforming the math department into a world-class research center, attracting to the faculty such luminaries as George David Birkhoff. Birkhoff produced a dazzling body of work, while training a generation of innovators–students like Marston Morse and Hassler Whitney, who forged novel pathways in topology and other areas. Influential figures from around the world soon flocked to Harvard, some overcoming great challenges to pursue their elected calling.

A History in Sum elucidates the contributions of these extraordinary minds and makes clear why the history of the Harvard mathematics department is an essential part of the history of mathematics in America and beyond.


This book tells the tale of how mathematics developed at Harvard–and by extension in the United States–since early days. It is filled with fascinating stories about some of the legendary names of modern mathematics. Both fans of mathematics and readers curious about the history of Harvard will enjoy it. (Edward Witten, Professor Of Physics, Institute For Advanced Study)

A History in Sum is a beautiful tribute to a beautiful subject, one that illuminates mathematics through the lens of some of its most remarkable practitioners. The authors’ love of mathematics shines through every chapter, as they use accessible and spirited language to describe a wealth of heady insights and the all-too-human stories of the minds that discovered them. There is perhaps no better book for immersion into the curious and compelling history of mathematical thought. (Brian Greene, Professor Of Mathematics & Physics, Columbia University)

The book is written in a leisurely style, the scope is remarkably broad, and the topics covered are explained astonishingly well. Once I started the book, I simply couldn’t put it down and I was ecstatic to easily understand important mathematics far from my own research interests. (Joel Smoller, Professor Of Mathematics, University Of Michigan)

A History in Sum contains a wealth of good stories, stories that go to the heart of the development of mathematics in this country. The authors succeed in humanizing and enlivening what might otherwise be a dry treatment of the subject. (Ron Irving, Professor Of Mathematics, University Of Washington)

  • Author: Steve Nadis and Shing-Tung Yau
  • Hardcover: 280 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (October 7, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 067472500X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674725003
  • Price: $39.95
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 9 inches

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