Skip to main content

Pythagoras – Kitty Ferguson ****

As an author of a biography of Roger Bacon, whose sole biographical details are limited to passing references in his books, I’ve a lot of sympathy with the plight of Kitty Ferguson in writing about Pythagoras. At least with Bacon I had his writing and science to call upon in The First Scientist, but Ferguson admits early on that everything there is to be said for certain about Pythagoras can be fitted in a paragraph. We don’t really know anything much about him, nor are there any books by him. To make matters worse, the Pythagoreans didn’t believe in sharing their wisdom with the common herd, so much of what they thought was kept secret.
We discover that Pythagoras wasn’t even responsible for that famous theorem – the concept of a mathematical proof didn’t really exist in his time and the method of solving it was around well before Pythagoras.
However what the Pythagoreans do seem responsible is the broad sweep of applying a mathematical approach to understanding the universe (even if the way the used it was mostly rubbish) and did come up with one scientific discovery in terms of the way musical harmonics work with doubling of the length of strings etc. (They also came up with less useful imaginings about the ‘music of the spheres’ but you can’t have everything.)
So what is Ferguson to do? She manages to make the subject interesting and relevant by following through the influence of Pythagorean ideas (or, for that matter, ideas that were probably incorrectly ascribed to Pythagoras and his followers) all the way to the twentieth century. So you are as likely to meet Bertrand Russell in these pages as an Ancient Greek.
On the whole this works well. There were times when the exhaustive pursuit of Pythagorean concepts (this is a fairly fat book at 330 pages plus notes, quite remarkable considering how little we know about Pythagoras and his school) gets a trifle tedious. There are many different names to handle and discussions of the subtlety of whether something is truly Pythagorean or just labelled this for various reasons. And I would have liked a bit more maths and a bit less woffle on the ‘music of the spheres’ a Pythagorean (probably) idea that is just silly.
However, that didn’t stop this being a noble effort to throw more light on a philosophy that is often referred to without really understanding what it is – and in the end we have to come back to that magnificent imaginative leap of linking physical reality and number. Unlike Ferguson’s earlier book Measuring the Universe, this one does sometimes capture the imagination and gives significant room for thought.
Paperback (US is hardback):  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Dialogues - Clifford Johnson ***

The authors of science books are always trying to find new ways to get the message across to their audiences. In Dialogues, Clifford Johnson combines a very modern technique - the graphic novel or comic strip - with an approach that goes back to Ancient Greece - using a dialogue to add life to what might seem a dry message.

We have seen the comic strip approach trying to put across quite detailed science before in Mysteries of the Quantum Universe. As with that book, Dialogues manages to cover a fair amount of actual physics, but I still feel that the medium just wastes vast acres of page to say very little at all. This is brought home here because quite a lot of the sections of Dialogues start with several pages with no text on at all, just setting up the scenario.

As for using a discussion between two people to put a message across, Johnson makes the point that, for instance, Galileo's very readable masterpiece Two New Sciences is in the form of a dialogue (more accurately a discu…

On the Moor - Richard Carter ****

There's much to enjoy in Richard Carter's pean to the frugal yet visceral delights of being one with England's Pennine moorland. If this were all there were to the book it would have made a good nature read, but Carter cleverly weaves in science at every opportunity, whether it's inspired by direct observations of birds and animals and plants - I confess I was ignorant of the peregrine falcon's 200 mile per hour dive - or spinning off from a trig point onto the geometric methods of surveying through history all the way up to GPS.

Carter is something of an expert on Darwin, and inevitably the great man comes into the story many times - yet his appearance never seems forced. It's hard to spend your time in a natural environment like this and not have Darwin repeatedly brought to mind.

I confess to a distinct love of these moors. Having spent my first 11 years in and around Littleborough, just the other side of Blackstone Edge from Carter's moor, the moorland…

Liam Drew - Four Way Interview

Liam Drew is a writer and former neurobiologist. he has a PhD in sensory biology from University College, London and spent 12 years researching schizophrenia, pain and the birth of new neurons in the adult mammalian brain. His writing has appeared in Nature, New Scientist, Slate and the Guardian. He lives in Kent with his wife and two daughters. His new book is I, Mammal.

Why science?

As hackneyed as it is to say, I think I owe my fascination with science to a great teacher – in my case, Ian West, my A-level biology teacher.  Before sixth form, I had a real passion for the elegance and logic of maths, from which a basic competence at science at school arose.  But I feel like I mainly enjoyed school science in the way a schoolkid enjoys being good at stuff, rather than it being a passion.

Ian was a revelation to me.  He was a stern and divisive character, but I loved the way he taught.  He began every lesson by providing us with a series of observations and fact, then, gradually, between …