Skip to main content

Poor Robin’s Prophecies – Benjamin Wardhaugh ***

This is an unusual one. It’s reminiscent of that quote on Wagner’s music. Not Woody Allen’s (I can’t listen to that much Wagner. I start getting the urge to conquer Poland.) or Oscar Wilde’s (I like Wagner’s music better than anybody’s. It is so loud that one can talk the whole time without other people hearing what one says.) but Rossini’s – Mr. Wagner has beautiful moments but awful quarters of an hour.
That probably makes the book sound worse than it is (unless you like Wagner). The concept is brilliant. It is looking back at a seventeenth/eighteenth century phenomenon and using it as a hook on which to hang an assessment of the everyday approach to maths in England in that time. The phenomenon in question is Poor Robin’s Prophesies, a long running almanac. In general almanacs were annual publications that threw in what the authors thought of as lots of useful information, from saints’ days to tide tables, with a good dollop of astrology to add zest. Poor Robin was initially primarily a satirical attack on the other almanacs, including saints days like Robin Hood and the day Jane fell off the hen-roost.
Author Benjamin Wardhaugh is at his best when looking at the almanacs and their quirky view on life in those interesting times. Where the book falls down a little is the lengthy sections on how the basics of maths were taught back then, including lengthy commentary on some maths notebooks of the period. I am interested in maths, but these parts left me cold.
There is no doubt there are some real delights here, primarily in the bits that have little to do with science or maths and everything to do with the culture of the period. And it should be of interest to any historian of mathematics. But it’s not a book for everyone.
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…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…