Skip to main content

Mathematics with Love – Mary Stopes-Roe *****

Admittedly it’s early days (this review is written in January), but this, for me, is the surprise hit of the year so far! I approached this book with trepidation, but found it absolutely delightful. It is described on the cover as the “courtship correspondence of Barnes Wallis, inventor of the bouncing bomb”, and contains a series of letters between Wallis and his cousin and eventual wife Molly Bloxham, along with some useful annotation by their daughter, Mary. The courtship itself is not without difficulties, as Wallis was 18 years older than the 17-year-old Molly at the start of the correspondence, and her father, not surprisingly, wasn’t too pleased about the interest of such an elderly suitor, but that isn’t the only reason the letters are interesting – it’s also because of maths, and Wallis’s position in the UK as the engineering hero of the Second World War. (Incidentally, it seemed very strange to see letters addressed to “Barnes” – I had always assumed Barnes Wallis was a bit like Fox Talbot, but Barnes was, in fact, his first name.)
The letters are reminiscent of a mix of three very different sources. The first is a series of letters written by the German mathematician, Leonhard Euler in the mid eighteenth century, a correspondence with the Princess d’Anhalt Dessau, one of the Prussian king’s nieces. Euler gave the princess a correspondence course in science – and in a similar way, Barnes Wallis gives Molly lessons in mathematics. It seems she needed it for her college course, but had been taught no science, and little useful maths at school (not right for a gel, you know). The second reflection are the letters of Lewis Carroll. There is often a similar nonsense humour, particularly to the letters from Wallis, that is very reminiscent of Carroll, as is the basic writing style, even though these letters were started in the 1920s, 60 years after Carroll’s Alice books were written. The third flavour here is pure Enid Blighton. This once hugely popular UK children’s author wrote books full of ripping adventures and jolly japes – and the language of our pair is pure Blighton.
Why is the book so good? It’s partially a glimpse into a world really not far away in time, yet far removed from our own. We are inclined to sympathise more with the German maid who doesn’t understand Wallis’s desire for a cold bath, that with Barnes and Molly who seem to think daily cold baths are a normal and desirable thing, and the maid’s incomprehension some strange foreign trait. It’s also interesting from the glimpses of Wallis’s work, on airships at this stage in his career, in a complex and difficult time for Europe. In the UK, at least, Barnes Wallis is remembered as an engineering genius for his invention of bombs that could bounce across the surface of water then hit and destroy a dam. In practice the bombs were of mixed value, and hardly used, but he is a name that resonates with anyone who was alive, or whose parents were alive, in the Second World War.
There are some snags. Although Wallis does a surprisingly good job, particularly on calculus and a smidgen of physics, the maths can be dull, especially trigonometry (he admits this himself) – though you can skip through much of this without losing the thread. And the illustrations aren’t very effective. Wallis included excellent hand-drawn diagrams, but as reproduced in the book they are faint and not always easy to read. Also the final quarter or so lacks content as both the maths and much discussion of Wallis’s work stops as he is given permission to express his love more explicitly by his future father-in-law. Finally, the sheer ever-so-reserved character of the period can get terribly (terribly, terribly, old thing) wearing. You can only take so much “I say, you must find my letters jolly boring because I really am not awfully good at this sort of thing, so I’d quite understand it if you decided you didn’t want me to write again” type of comment. But it’s bearable, and worth it for the overall effect.
I really, really don’t know why this book is so effective. It really shouldn’t be. No really. But it is.
Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…