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.
Mario Livio is a Senior Astrophysicist and Head of the Office of Public Outreach at the Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, USA.