Books by Derbyshire, John

Derbyshire, John. From the Dissident Right. Litchfield, CT:, 2013. ISBN 978-1-304-00154-2.
This is a collection of columns dating from 2001–2013, mostly from, but also from Taki's Magazine (including the famous “The Talk: Nonblack Version”, which precipitated the author's departure from National Review).

Subtitled “Essays on the National Question”, the articles mostly discuss the composition of the population and culture of the United States, and how mass immigration (both legal and illegal) from cultures very different from that of the largely homogeneous majority culture of the U.S. prior to the Immigration and Nationality Acy of 1965, from regions of the world with no tradition of consensual government, individual and property rights, and economic freedom is changing the U.S., eroding what once contributed to its exceptionalism. Unlike previous waves of immigration from eastern and southern Europe, Ireland, and Asia, the prevailing multicultural doctrine of ruling class élites is encouraging these new immigrants to retain their languages, cultures, and way of life, while public assistance frees them from the need to assimilate to earn a living.

Frankly discussing these issues today is guaranteed to result in one's being deemed a racist, nativist, and other pejorative terms, and John Derbyshire has been called those and worse. This is incongruous since he is a naturalised U.S. citizen who immigrated from England married to a woman born in China. To me, Derbyshire comes across as an observer much like George Orwell who sees the facts on the ground, does his research, and writes with an unrelenting realism about the actual situation with no regard for what can and cannot be spoken according to the guardians of the mass culture. Derbyshire sees a nation at risk, with its ruling class either enthusiastically promoting or passively accepting its transformation into the kind of economically stratified, authoritarian, and impoverished society which caused so many immigrants to leave their nations of origin and come to the U.S. in the first place.

If you are a Kindle Unlimited subscriber, the Kindle edition is free. This essays in this book are available online for free, so I wouldn't buy the paperback or pay full price for the Kindle version, but if you have Kindle Unlimited, the price is right.

August 2015 Permalink

Derbyshire, John. Prime Obsession. Washington: Joseph Henry Press, 2003. ISBN 0-309-08549-7.
This is simply the finest popular mathematics book I have ever read.

June 2003 Permalink

Derbyshire, John. Unknown Quantity. Washington: Joseph Henry Press, 2006. ISBN 0-309-09657-X.
After exploring a renowned mathematical conundrum (the Riemann Hypothesis) in all its profundity in Prime Obsession (June 2003), in this book the author recounts the history of algebra—an intellectual quest sprawling over most of recorded human history and occupying some of the greatest minds our species has produced. Babylonian cuneiform tablets dating from the time of Hammurabi, about 3800 years ago, demonstrate solving quadratic equations, extracting square roots, and finding Pythagorean triples. (The methods in the Babylonian texts are recognisably algebraic but are expressed as “word problems” instead of algebraic notation.) Diophantus, about 2000 years later, was the first to write equations in a symbolic form, but this was promptly forgotten. In fact, twenty-six centuries after the Babylonians were solving quadratic equations expressed in word problems, al-Khwārizmī (the word “algebra” is derived from the title of his book,
الكتاب المختصر في حساب الجبر والمقابلة
al-Kitāb al-mukhtaṣar fī ḥisāb al-jabr wa-l-muqābala,
and “algorithm” from his name) was solving quadratic equations in word problems. It wasn't until around 1600 that anything resembling the literal symbolism of modern algebra came into use, and it took an intellect of the calibre of René Descartes to perfect it. Finally, equipped with an expressive notation, rules for symbolic manipulation, and the slowly dawning realisation that this, not numbers or geometric figures, is ultimately what mathematics is about, mathematicians embarked on a spiral of abstraction, discovery, and generalisation which has never ceased to accelerate in the centuries since. As more and more mathematics was discovered (or, if you're an anti-Platonist, invented), deep and unexpected connections were found among topics once considered unrelated, and this is a large part of the story told here, as algebra has “infiltrated” geometry, topology, number theory, and a host of other mathematical fields while, in the form of algebraic geometry and group theory, providing the foundation upon which the most fundamental theories of modern physics are built.

With all of these connections, there's a strong temptation for an author to wander off into fields not generally considered part of algebra (for example, analysis or set theory); Derbyshire is admirable in his ability to stay on topic, while not shortchanging the reader where important cross-overs occur. In a book of this kind, especially one covering such a long span of history and a topic so broad, it is difficult to strike the right balance between explaining the mathematics and sketching the lives of the people who did it, and between a historical narrative and one which follows the evolution of specific ideas over time. In the opinion of this reader, Derbyshire's judgement on these matters is impeccable. As implausible as it may seem to some that a book about algebra could aspire to such a distinction, I found this one of the more compelling page-turners I've read in recent months.

Six “math primers” interspersed in the text provide the fundamentals the reader needs to understand the chapters which follow. While excellent refreshers, readers who have never encountered these concepts before may find the primers difficult to comprehend (but then, they probably won't be reading a history of algebra in the first place). Thirty pages of end notes not only cite sources but expand, sometimes at substantial length, upon the main text; readers should not deprive themselves this valuable lagniappe.

January 2007 Permalink

Derbyshire, John. We Are Doomed. New York: Crown Forum, 2009. ISBN 978-0-307-40958-4.
In this book, genial curmudgeon John Derbyshire, whose previous two books were popular treatments of the Riemann hypothesis and the history of algebra, argues that an authentically conservative outlook on life requires a relentlessly realistic pessimism about human nature, human institutions, and the human prospect. Such a pessimistic viewpoint immunises one from the kind of happy face optimism which breeds enthusiasm for breathtaking ideas and grand, ambitious schemes, which all of history testifies are doomed to failure and tragedy.

Adopting a pessimistic attitude is, Derbyshire says, not an effort to turn into a sourpuss (although see the photograph of the author on the dust jacket), but simply the consequence of removing the rose coloured glasses and looking at the world as it really is. To grind down the reader's optimism into a finely-figured speculum of gloom, a sequence of chapters surveys the Hellbound landscape of what passes for the modern world: “diversity”, politics, popular culture, education, economics, and third-rail topics such as achievement gaps between races and the assimilation of immigrants. The discussion is mostly centred on the United States, but in chapter 11, we take a tour d'horizon and find that things are, on the whole, as bad or worse everywhere else.

In the conclusion the author, who is just a few years my senior, voices a thought which has been rattling around my own brain for some time: that those of our generation living in the West may be seen, in retrospect, as having had the good fortune to live in a golden age. We just missed the convulsive mass warfare of the 20th century (although not, of course, frequent brushfire conflicts in which you can be killed just as dead, terrorism, or the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War), lived through the greatest and most broadly-based expansion of economic prosperity in human history, accompanied by more progress in science, technology, and medicine than in all of the human experience prior to our generation. Further, we're probably going to hand in our dinner pails before the economic apocalypse made inevitable by the pyramid of paper money and bogus debt we created, mass human migrations, demographic collapse, and the ultimate eclipse of the tattered remnants of human liberty by the malignant state. Will people decades and centuries hence look back at the Boomer generation as the one that reaped all the benefits for themselves and passed on the bills and the adverse consequences to their descendants? That's the way to bet.

So what is to be done? How do we turn the ship around before we hit the iceberg? Don't look for any such chirpy suggestions here: it's all in the title—we are doomed! My own view is that we're in a race between a technological singularity and a new dark age of poverty, ignorance, subjugation to the state, and pervasive violence. Sharing the author's proclivity for pessimism, you can probably guess which I judge more probable. If you concur, you might want to read this book, which will appear in this chronicle in due time.

The book includes neither bibliography nor index. The lack of the former is particularly regrettable as a multitude of sources are cited in the text, many available online. It would be wonderful if the author posted a bibliography of clickable links (to online articles or purchase links for books cited) on his Web site, where there is a Web log of comments from readers and the author's responses.

October 2009 Permalink