17 Equations That Changed the World – Ian Stewart


In In Pursuit of the Unknown, celebrated mathematician Ian Stewart uses a handful of mathematical equations to explore the vitally important connections between math and human progress. We often overlook the historical link between mathematics and technological advances, says Stewart—but this connection is integral to any complete understanding of human history.

Equations are modeled on the patterns we find in the world around us, says Stewart, and it is through equations that we are able to make sense of, and in turn influence, our world. Stewart locates the origins of each equation he presents—from Pythagoras’s Theorem to Newton’s Law of Gravity to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity—within a particular historical moment, elucidating the development of mathematical and philosophical thought necessary for each equation’s discovery. None of these equations emerged in a vacuum, Stewart shows; each drew, in some way, on past equations and the thinking of the day. In turn, all of these equations paved the way for major developments in mathematics, science, philosophy, and technology. Without logarithms (invented in the early 17th century by John Napier and improved by Henry Briggs), scientists would not have been able to calculate the movement of the planets, and mathematicians would not have been able to develop fractal geometry. The Wave Equation is one of the most important equations in physics, and is crucial for engineers studying the vibrations in vehicles and the response of buildings to earthquakes. And the equation at the heart of Information Theory, devised by Claude Shannon, is the basis of digital communication today.

An approachable and informative guide to the equations upon which nearly every aspect of scientific and mathematical understanding depends, In Pursuit of the Unknown is also a reminder that equations have profoundly influenced our thinking and continue to make possible many of the advances that we take for granted.


“Stewart is the finest living math popularizer – a writer who can tackle eye-spraining mathematical topics approachably, and yet dazzle hard-core nerds with new and surprising information. It is hard not to get your money’s worth from him, and in a book like this he is at his best because of the very wide ground covered.”

Library Journal
“Stewart’s expertise and his well-developed style (enhanced by a nice sense of humor) make for enjoyable reading…. [A] worthwhile and entertaining book, accessible to all readers. Recommended for anyone interested in the influence of mathematics on the development of science and on the emergence of our current technology-driven society.”

Washington Independent Review of Books

“Stewart has managed to produce a remarkably readable, informative and entertaining volume on a subject about which few are as well informed as they would like to be.”


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