With the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem in 1994, Derbyshire says, “the Riemann Hypothesis is now the great white whale of mathematical research.” Even before that, it was regarded by mathematicians as the more significant problem—though not as old as FLT, it is more central to mathematics and probably a good deal harder.

And harder to explain. Of the two new books offering an account for a popular audience, Prime Obsession and Karl Sabbagh’s The Riemann Hypothesis (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), Derbyshire’s offers the better insight. Sabbagh’s is a well-written book with interesting stories from mathematicians working in the field, but Derbyshire is a talented expositor determined to make the reader understand some serious mathematics. A general reader with some memory of high school algebra who is willing to concentrate will come away with a grasp of...


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