The Mystery of the Aleph: Mathematics, the Kabbalah, and the Search for Infinity

by Amir D. Aczel

Book, 2000



Call number

150 ACZ


New York, NY : Washington Square Press, [2001], c2000.


From the end of the 19th century until his death, one of history's most brilliant mathematicians languished in an asylum. The Mystery of the Aleph tells the story of Georg Cantor (1845-1918), a Russian-born German who created set theory, the concept of infinite numbers, and the "continuum hypothesis," which challenged the very foundations of mathematics. His ideas brought expected denunciation from established corners - he was called a "corruptor of youth" not only for his work in mathematics, but for his larger attempts to meld spirituality and science.

User reviews

LibraryThing member beelzebubba
I was infinitely disappointed with this book. I expected so much more. The biggest problem is that I don't believe Aczel knew what kind of book he wanted to write. The subtitle is “Mathematics, the Kabbalah, and the Search for Infinity.” What the subtitle should have been was, “Study Infinity
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and Lose your Mind.” Because that's really all he harped on. Cantor studied infinity, and what happened to him? He went crazy. Godel picks up the torch. Result? Crazy. I think a few more mathematicians might have gone off the deep end as well, but I don't remember. I found myself just wanting to get through it. What math there was contributed little to the narrative. The Kabbalah gets one chapter, and is barely mentioned again. But I did learn something about infinity. It can't be comprehended. Gee, I think I knew that before I picked up this book. Oh well, I did get one good tidbit out of it. Lord Bertrand Russell could be a real scoundrel when he wanted to. God love him.
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LibraryThing member Pretzelcoatl
When I took a course on the study of the Kabbalah back in college, this book was one of the required reading materials. At the time, we only covered parts of it, but I loved the entire connection between the Kabbalah and mathematics, and hoped to read through the whole thing at some
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Unfortunately, my perspective towards math has become much more favorable since then. I say "unfortunate" because although this book helped me become less intimidated and more interested with the field of mathematics, it didn't wow me as much as it did in the past. Moreover, the Kabbalah connection is very loosely connected -- not only is it not mentioned much more in the book after the first couple of chapters, but it's based upon a conjecture on the depths of Cantor's heritage. It might just be my own perception, but it doesn't seem like the theme holds together very well, and at points the timeframe of when important people are described seems to jump all over the place.

What I disliked the most, however, was Aczel's occasional insinuation that the pursuit of infinity "caused" the decline in mental health of several key figures. This bothers me because it makes it sound like there were no other root causes. While Aczel does note other things (particularly Cantor's antagonists, who made efforts to discredit his views), and while I understand how it's impossible to get into neurochemistry and psychopathology considering how the figures are historical, it becomes annoying when there is no other theories presented about how a person with mental illness might have been so motivated to research these concepts.

Still, maybe time will again make me look at this book in a different light. The subjects that aren't relating to mathematics (history, psychology, philosophy, religion) are all there but don't come together. What does come together is what kept me reading this book: the math (which was easy for me back then to understand) and the passion behind mathematics. So I can't recommend this book to everyone, but if you grew up thinking math was boring or difficult or intimidating (not that the concept of infinity is NOT difficult or intimidating)... maybe this will help you fall in love, just like it happened with me.
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LibraryThing member craigim
This is my third book by Aczel, preceded (in reading order) by The Riddle of the Compass and Pendulum. I found this one to be the weakest of the three, which is odd since Aczel has multiple degrees in mathematics and has lectured on the subject at several top universities.

Mystery of the Aleph
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traces the concept of infinity from its first stirrings in Greek antiquity, through early efforts at defining it both as a mathematical concept and as a metaphor for God (the Kabbalah connection), and into the life of Georg Cantor and his successors who turned the study of infinity into a concrete mathematical exercise.

I think that perhaps Aczel, being a mathematician, was too close to the subject matter and I found many of the mathematical explanations a bit sparse. I also did not care for the over-emphasis on the descent into madness of both Cantor and Gödel while working on transfinite set theory. It reminded me of similar stories surrounding thermodynamics and the depression of Boltzmann and others. Repeat after me: sometimes people with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or other mental illnesses have jobs in math or science, but the study of hard or esoteric math problems does not cause or trigger mental illness.
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LibraryThing member fpagan
A quite readable history of the transfinite numbers. Appropriately emphasizes Georg Cantor and the Continuum Hypothesis (which claims there is no infinite cardinal between the number of integers and the number of reals). Mischievously suggests that anyone (e.g. Cantor, Gödel) who thinks too hard
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about the CH is bound to go mad.
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LibraryThing member Sippara
If you're looking for much connection to Kabbalah, you won't find it. According to Aczel, Cantor was a Frankist. However, Aczel's book is like low-hanging entertainment fruit for us nerdy types....and we like him for that.
LibraryThing member _Zoe_
I abandoned this book at least a decade ago, after reading only one chapter. It's a topic that I'm extremely interested in, but I just don't have a use for a book on this topic that's almost entirely without references. Flipping through the first chapter now in an attempt to remember why I found it
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so disappointing, this sentence stood out: "A great tribute to the Pythagoreans' intellectual achievements is the fact that they deduced the special place of the number 10 from an abstract mathematical argument rather than from counting the fingers on two hands." This seems pretty speculative; I can't help wondering whether the justification might have come *after* the idea that ten was special.
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LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
Not a bad little book, detailing briefly the history of transfinite numbers, the lives of Cantor and Gödel, and their theories. Delved a little bit too deeply into religious speculation, and not too much at all in the mathematical implications of the work produced. Recommended, but only as a
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primer and with additional research.
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