The Equation That Couldn't Be Solved

How Mathematical Genius Discovered the Language of Symmetry

The Equation That Couldn't Be Solved

What do Bach's compositions, Rubik's Cube, the way we choose our mates, and the physics of subatomic particles have in common? All are governed by the laws of symmetry, which elegantly unify scientific and artistic principles. Yet the mathematical language of symmetry-known as group theory-did not emerge from the study of symmetry at all, but from an equation that couldn't be solved.

For thousands of years mathematicians solved progressively more difficult algebraic equations, until they encountered the quintic equation, which resisted solution for three centuries. Working independently, two great prodigies ultimately proved that the quintic cannot be solved by a simple formula. These geniuses, a Norwegian named Niels Henrik Abel and a romantic Frenchman named Évariste Galois, both died tragically young. Their incredible labor, however, produced the origins of group theory.

The first extensive, popular account of the mathematics of symmetry and order, The Equation That Couldn't Be Solved is told not through abstract formulas but in a beautifully written and dramatic account of the lives and work of some of the greatest and most intriguing mathematicians in history.
  • Simon & Schuster | 
  • 368 pages | 
  • ISBN 9780743258210 | 
  • September 2006
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About the Author

Mario Livio
Photograph by J. Coyle Jr.

Mario Livio

Mario Livio is an internationally known astrophysicist, a bestselling author, and a popular speaker who has appeared on The Daily Show60 Minutes, and NOVA. He is the author of the national bestseller Brilliant Blunders and other books. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.