Cards on the table: I approached Amir Alexander’s book warily. The title places it in a suspect genre; according to an Amazon search, our overdetermined world has been decisively shaped by, among many other things, codfish, cotton, Islam, the Scots, air conditioning, the Lunar Society of Birmingham, and, if we include the testimony of documentary films, beer. And the book’s introduction suggests a morality play that flatters all the prejudices of the right-thinking: “On the one side were the advocates of intellectual freedom, scientific progress, and political reform; on the other, the champions of authority, universal and unchanging knowledge, and fixed political hierarchy.”

Well and clearly written, Infinitesimal tells two stories about a...

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