The Rainbow: From Myth to Mathematics


The Rainbow: From Myth to Mathematics by Carl B Boyer

Synopsis/Review: Carl Boyer is well known to those interested in the history of mathematics for his ‘History of mathematics’ (1968) and for ‘The history of the calculus and its conceptual development’ (1939). The story of man’s fascination with the rainbow and the attempts to explain its colours and its formation was first published in 1959. … As a case study in the history of science the story of the rainbow shows that progress in science is not a steady advance with more adequate explanations following each other at regular intervals but is a progress by fits and starts. It shows that the accumulation of observations however accurate is not a substitute for ideas. Neither are instruments a substitute for insight – the idea of a globe of water as a magnified raindrop disappeared between Theodoric and Descartes but the globe of water as a gadget persisted. The book is well produced and is easier to read than the complexity of the subject matter would lead one to believe. It has excursions into poetry and is full of erudition. It should prove of great interest to all who would like to understand how mathematics “explains” and underpins qualitative explanations of phenomena and to those who like intellectual detective stories.

First Published: 1959 |

Mini-bio: Carl Benjamin Boyer was an American historian of sciences, and especially mathematics. Novelist David Foster Wallace called him the “Gibbon of math history”. It has been written that he was one of few historians of mathematics of his time to “keep open links with contemporary history of science.” – Wikipedia

The very first history of mathematics book that I bought was Carl B. Boyer’s A History of Mathematics and I still have my very well thumbed and somewhat battered copy sitting on my bookshelf, where it gets consulted at regular intervals. It’s the book, in its modernised revised edition, which I recommend to people who ask about a general introduction to the subject. Boyer is also the author of The RainbowFrom Myth to Mathematics, which documents in detail the attempts made, from antiquity up to the nineteenth century, to explain scientifically (or proto-scientifically) that beautiful but enigmatic phenomenon, the rainbow. This book is a superb documentation of how science often takes two steps forward and one step back, or three steps sideways and sometimes doesn’t move at all. How theories are discovered and then lost, only to be rediscovered centuries later. How scholars almost get it right but screw up on one or other important detail and so on. The book is an excellent antidote to those who naïvely still believe in a Whig triumphalist linear march of progress in the history of science. – From 10 Great History of (European) Science Books and more

Isis Journal Book Review
Philosophy of Science Book Review

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Paperback Edition: The Rainbow: From Myth to Mathematics (Princeton paperbacks)


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