Kevin Lambert’s Symbols and Things is a remarkable piece of work that has the promise to significantly expand our understandings of the ways mathematical ideas develop in their historical contexts. Lambert’s focus is on developments in Victorian mathematics and physics, but the implications of his mode of analysis stretch far beyond the constraints of that depiction. His understanding of mathematicians as engaged in ‘mindful work’ allows him to recognize their essential ties to the work of builders, painters, poets, theologians, and natural philosophers. In Lambert’s construction, the textbooks, journals, libraries, museums, diagrams, notebooks, and personal letters in which mathematics was embedded become the tips of icebergs of material, social, and political development. The result is a breathtakingly original study that at once recasts understandings of the nature of mathematics and sheds new light on the Victorian culture in which it developed.
In the steam-powered mechanical age of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the work of late Georgian and early Victorian mathematicians depended on far more than the properties of number. British mathematicians came to rely on industrialized paper and pen manufacture, railways and mail, and the print industries of the book, disciplinary journal, magazine, and newspaper. Though not always physically present with one another, the characters central to this book—from George Green to William Rowan Hamilton—relied heavily on communication technologies as they developed their theories in consort with colleagues. The letters they exchanged, together with the equations, diagrams, tables, or pictures that filled their manuscripts and publications, were all tangible traces of abstract ideas that extended mathematicians into their social and material environment. Each chapter of this book explores a thing, or assembling of things, mathematicians needed to do their work—whether a textbook, museum, journal, library, diagram, notebook, or letter—all characteristic of the mid-nineteenth-century British taskscape, but also representative of great change to a discipline brought about by an industrialized world in motion.