Skip to main content

Mathematicians – Mariana Cook ***

Oka-a-y… a book of pictures of mathematicians, right? I can just imagine the response at the commissioning meeting in the publishing house (though not how it got through). Stated baldly, the idea isn’t a winner. Like most people, I’ve been quite interested in pictures of Einstein (and with the geeks, I’m also interested in Richard Feynman). This is because they weren’t just great scientists, but celebrities too. But even then, I wouldn’t buy a book of their photos. When it comes to mathematical celebrities, erm, well, there’s, erm, Pierre de Fermat – but he predates photography – and, well, oh, I don’t know. So what are we to make of this coffee table format book, subtitled ‘an outer view of the inner world’?
When it came down to it, the reality was better than the anticipation. Apart from the inevitably pretentious introductions, the book is a series of Dorling Kindersley-style two page spreads. On the right is a black and white portrait, on the left a page full (with a lot of white space) of pondering by the mathematician in question, often trying to explain how they came to maths or why it’s interesting.
My first inclination was to jump to the list and see if I recognized any names among the 92 mathematicians. Well, there was Roger Penrose (a physicist, I would have said) and our very own British mathematical media star Marcus du Sautoy, Isadore Singer and Andrew Wiles but that was about it. (No Greg Chaitin, by the way – how did you miss him, guys?), but after that I wasn’t really sure what to do with it. I flicked through the portraits – arty without being over-silly, so not bad – then read a few of the texts. They were fine, but after four or five they got a trifle samey.
If I’m honest, this seems to me to be a very large lavatory book. The sort of thing you keep in the loo for an occasional dip into it, but not a book you’d want to read from cover to cover. If anyone remembers the little pocket Observer’s books (I particularly loved the Observer’s Book of Pond Life – no, really), it’s a bit like a huge version of one of these. The Observer’s Book of Mathematicians. Useful for spotting them in the wild.
For me, this is an ‘it seemed a good idea at the time‘ book. But, hey, it’s art I suppose, so what do I know?
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

The Bastard Legion (SF) - Gavin Smith *****

Science fiction has a long tradition of 'military in space' themes - and usually these books are uninspiring at best and verging on fascist at worst. From a serious SF viewpoint, it seemed that Joe Haldeman's magnificent The Forever War made the likes of Starship Troopers a mocked thing of the past, but sadly Hollywood seems to have rebooted the concept and we now see a lot of military SF on the shelves.

The bad news is that The Bastard Legion could not be classified as anything else - but the good news is that, just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer subverted the vampire genre, The Bastard Legion has so many twists on a straightforward 'marines in space' title that it does a brilliant job of subversion too.

The basic scenario is instantly different. Miska is heading up a mercenary legion, except they're all hardened criminals on a stolen prison ship, taking part because she has stolen the ship and fitted them all with explosive collars. Oh, and helping her train her &…

The Laser Inventor - Theodore Maiman ****

While the memoirs of many scientists are probably best kept for family consumption, there are some breakthroughs where the story is sufficiently engaging that it can be fascinating to get an inside view on what really happened. Although Theodore Maiman's autobiographical book is not a slick, journalist-polished account, it is very effective at highlighting two significant narratives - how Maiman was able to construct the first ever laser, despite having far fewer resources than many of his competitors, and how 'establishment' academic physicists, particularly in the US, tried to minimise his achievement.

On the straight autobiographical side, we get some early background and discover how Maiman combined degrees in electrical engineering and physics to have an unusually strong mix of the practical and the theoretical. Rather than go into academia after his doctorate, he went into industry - which seems to have been responsible for the backlash against his invention, which we…