Manjit Kumar

Coming Full Circle

Infinite Powers: The Story of Calculus – The Language of the Universe


Atlantic Books 360pp £20 order from our bookshop

Like any mention in the magical world of Harry Potter of Lord Voldemort, whose name others fear to speak, in ours simply uttering ‘calculus’ leaves many people with a rising sense of panic, triggering flashbacks of dreaded maths lessons in their schooldays.

Among the things I was never taught at school was that without calculus we wouldn’t have computers, microwave ovens, radio or television. As Steven Strogatz, an eminent American mathematician who teaches at Cornell University, explains in Infinite Powers, calculus also made possible the splitting of the atom and the unravelling of the human genome. It allowed Katherine Johnson, a NASA mathematician, to plot the trajectory of the Apollo 11 flight, enabling Neil Armstrong to take that one small step on the moon. Although Strogatz’s claim that calculus influenced Thomas Jefferson’s writing of the Declaration of Independence may seem far-fetched, he’s right to point out that every inorganic thing in the universe, from quarks to black holes, bends to its rules.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • 'I don’t think we’re here on Earth to be Happy. I think we’re here on Earth to help God. I am a messianic writer'.… ,
    • 'Darley’s book is not a mad dash through this most compelling and complex of English counties. Nor is it another ti… ,
    • 'Moser’s book offers such a gripping account of a profoundly damaged human being, trapped in a cycle of repetition,… ,
    • 'Ideas that I’d thought were set down in full continue to smoulder ... this book is only a snapshot of some larger… ,
    • 'Full of invention which, at its most pedestrian, is eminently Victorian, and at its most unrestrained wildly imagi… ,
    • 'What in other hands could have been a dry, pedantic account of Christianity’s birth and evolution becomes in Holla… ,
    • RT : One of my favourite literary magazines is celebrating 40 years this year. Here is the September edition of… ,