Thursday, 9 July 2009

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?
Review by Brian Clegg

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