Stars and Poppy Seeds

As the daughter of well-known mathematicians, Flora loves to count more than anything in the world. She counts all the things around her—the animals, grains of sand on the beach, and letters in her dad’s newspaper. When Dora looks at the Milky Way, she begins to wonder how to count the mesmerizing number of stars. Is it even possible? Is the night sky so full of stars that even all the numbers she knows would not be enough to count them? Dora soon learns that she needs to deal with such a complicated task by starting with the simplest of steps, and who knows, maybe one day she will achieve her dream.

Ada’s Ideas

Ada Lovelace (1815–1852) was the daughter of Lord Byron, a poet, and Anna Isabella Milbanke, a mathematician. Her parents separated when she was young, and her mother insisted on a logic-focused education, rejecting Byron’s “mad” love of poetry. But Ada remained fascinated with her father and considered mathematics “poetical science.” Via her friendship with inventor Charles Babbage, she became involved in “programming” his Analytical Engine, a precursor to the computer, thus becoming the world’s first computer programmer.

Ibn Al-Haytham: First Scientist

Ibn al-Haytham (“Alhazen” in Library of Congress cataloging) was born in Basra in 965. A Muslim who studied the works of Aristotle, Euclid, Archimedes, and Ptolemy, he developed an approach to science using experimentation and deduction and made significant observations and discoveries, particularly in the field of optics. Translations of his books influenced medieval European scientists and mathematicians from Bacon to Fermat to Kepler. Steffens notes that al-Haytham’s discovery of the cameraobscura may have changed Western art as well. Steffens has organized what is known of his subject’s life and work into a coherent narrative. He is quick to acknowledge gaps, but backs up inferences logically. Like the history of mathematics, the history of science is incomplete without an acknowledgment of early scholars in the Middle East. This clearly written introduction to al-Haytham, his society, and his contributions does that. The book concludes with a time line, source notes, a bibliography, and a list of Web sites.