Skip to main content

Pythagoras’ Revenge – Arturo Sangalli ***(*)

It’s unusual for us to feature a fiction book in our main reviews section. Pythagoras’ Revenge is a novel that is designed to get across mathematical ideas in a more approachable way. It scores the rather unusual 3.5 stars – because this is a book that is 2/3 good and 1/3 bad.
Let’s start with the good. The concept really works. I read a lot of popular science books and have to read a fiction book about one every third title just to keep my enthusiasm up. Fiction usually grabs the attention better than an popular science book, however well written, and I found that I shot through Arturo Sangalli’s book significantly faster than I would a normal popular science title, because I wanted to read on.
What’s more, the maths is fine – it’s pitched at the right sort of level to interest the general reader without being too painful. For those with a more heavy duty interest, there are one or two proofs in appendices. A lot of the maths is from ancient Greece, and as befits what can, with one hat on, be seen as a popular maths book, there’s a good selection of history and context for the Pythagoreans as well.
But then we come to the 1/3 that’s bad. As a novel, I’m afraid, it’s pretty terrible. It’s not really possible to identify who the main protagonist(s) are, and we don’t care about any of the characters. Although there is a little Da Vinci Code style puzzle, it isn’t particularly interesting, and it’s very much presented as: ‘here’s a puzzle, oh, it could be that, okay, we’ve solved it.’ There’s no real tension. The central plot line involving possible reincarnation stretches disbelief without any real reward for doing so. And, perhaps worst of all, it doesn’t have the proper flow of a novel. There are several instances where the voice suddenly goes from historic narration to simple fact telling. So we hear about something happening in Pythagoras’ time… then suddenly there’s a few pages of pure maths exposition that could have come from any popular maths book, with no sense that the characters are saying or thinking what we’re told. It just plonks in.
However, I think it’s a very brave attempt, and shows that this really is a way of getting across science that can work – and would work even better if it was framed in a decently written novel. I said I’d hurried through because I wanted to read on. In part this was because I was rushing through some of the more excruciating storyline, but it also was because the story form gives a natural inclination to want to read more. Human beings are story making animals, and this book shows that there is an opportunity to make use of this approach in the field. A fascinating attempt.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Four Way Interview - Tom Cabot

Tom Cabot is a London-based book editor and designer with a background in experimental psychology, natural science and graphic design. He founded the London-based packaging company, Ketchup, and has produced and illustrated many books for the British Film Institute, Penguin and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tom has held a lifelong passion to explain science graphically and inclusively ... ever since being blown away by Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten at an early age. His first book is Eureka, an infographic guide to science.

Why infographics?
For me infographics provided a way to present heavy-lifting science in an alluring and playful, but ultimately illuminating, way. And I love visualising data and making it as attractive as the ideas are.  The novelty of the presentation hopefully gets the reader to look afresh. I love the idea of luring in readers who might normally be put off by drier, more monotone science – people who left science behind at 16. I wanted the boo…

Einstein's Greatest Mistake - David Bodanis ****

Books on Einstein and his work are not exactly thin on the ground. There's even been more than one book before with a title centring on Einstein's mistake or mistakes. So to make a new title worthwhile it has do something different - and David Bodanis certainly achieves this with Einstein's Greatest Mistake. If I'm honest, the book isn't the greatest on the science or the history - but what it does superbly is tell a story. The question we have to answer is why that justifies considering this to be a good book.
I would compare Einstein's Greatest Mistake with the movie Lincoln -  it is, in effect, a biopic in book form with all the glory and flaws that can bring. Compared with a good biography, a biopic will distort the truth and emphasise parts of the story that aren't significant because they make for a good screen scene. But I would much rather someone watched the movie than never found out anything about Lincoln - and similarly I'd much rather someon…

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First t…