Book Review

To Infinity and Beyond: A Review of “The Life of Pi, and Other Infinities” by Natalie Angier

By Lo Tuan, Neurobiology, Physiology, and Behavior and Managerial Economics, ’17

Author’s Note:

I wrote this review as an assignment for a UWP course that investigates the role of science in society using different lenses and models. It was a scintillating experience engaging in scientific reading and writing while evaluating the relationship between science and society. This paper proved to be a useful exercise for me to communicate scientific information to the general public in a clear and accessible manner.

In “The Life of Pi, and Other Infinities,” author Natalie Angier challenges the popular assumption that infinity exists as a single entity. Through various references to academic authority, she explores the complexity and diversity of infinities. By effectively demonstrating the different kinds of expertise relevant to the topic of infinity, she establishes credibility that aligns with the Critical Understanding of Science in Public (CUSP) model. This model emphasizes science as an interactive component of society in which readers actively engage in the issues at hand. Angier argues that different infinities takes on distinct forms and serve unique purposes.

In the subject of mathematics, Angier recognizes the crucial role infinity plays in building the conceptual foundation for calculus by referencing Steven Strogatz, an applied mathematics professor at Cornell (Mukherjee 251-252). By fostering a connection between infinity and calculus, a subject the public is familiar with, Angier cleverly positions readers as participants in the exchange of knowledge. The figure of pi is another contribution of infinity in the field of mathematics, specifically in the realms of geometry and trigonometry.

Next, the author cites physics professor Anthony Aguirre from the University of California, Santa Cruz by discussing his work on theoretical cosmology to introduce physics as another discipline that is pertinent to infinity, furthering our understanding of the universe and its expansion. Studies of the Big Bang’s cosmic microwave afterglow prompted cosmologists to hypothesize that the universe we have come to know is nothing more than a small block of space-time embedded in a much grander, infinite universe.

While infinity had always been viewed as a tool for furthering knowledge, Georg Cantor presented a different perspective by treating infinity as an area of study. Angier describes that through extensive work, he made groundbreaking contributions that established a new branch of mathematics and expanded the application of infinity in modern society to encompass the investigation of large, complicated systems such as the weather and the economy.

The article discusses that while infinities have made numerous contributions to the advancement of human civilization, they also have the potential to create problems. Angier introduces A. W. Moore, a philosophy professor at Oxford University, who shares his insight on the history of infinity in relation to the ancient Greeks. Moore acknowledges that the idea of the universe being infinite implies the possible existence of duplicates, explaining the ancient Greeks’ dislike of infinity. This aligns with my own attitude towards infinity. If indeed the universe is infinite and duplicates exist, the notion unnerves me as it raises the question of identity and challenges our very perception of reality. I value “the finite” more than “the infinite” because I prefer what’s known over what’s unknown, the certain over uncertain.

By citing a variety of credible sources, Angier underscores the breadth of knowledge to encourage meaningful interactions among different areas of interests. By referencing academic experts in a diverse arena of professional disciplines, she successfully facilitates public engagement in her exploration of infinities that serves as a representation of the CUSP model.

This article opened my eyes to the important role infinity plays in our current understanding of the world around us. Angier illustrates that infinities have become such an integral part of the world we live in that they have made meaningful impacts not only in the fields of math and physics, but also history and philosophy. They stimulate our imaginations and create new possibilities that were previously inconceivable. Like the author suggested, I have always thought that there is only one infinity used to describe the realm of eternal continuance and what’s outside of our comprehension. The idea that multiple infinities exist presents an overwhelming prospect that accentuates our limited grasp of knowledge.

Reference

Mukherjee, Siddhartha. The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013.

Edited by Carly Cheung, Nicole Strossman, and Lauren Uchiyama