Skip to main content

Closing the Gap - Vicky Neale ***

Every now and then a working scientist will write a superb popular science book, but it's significantly rarer that mathematicians stray beyond recreational maths without becoming impenetrable, so I was cheering as I read the first few chapters of Vicky Neale's Closing the Gap about the attempt to prove the 'twin primes conjecture' that infinitely many pairs of prime numbers just two apart.

I'd say those first few chapters are far and above the best example I've seen of a mathematician getting across the essence of pure maths and why it appeals to them. Unfortunately, though, from then on the book gets bogged down in the problem that almost always arises, that what delights and fascinates mathematicians tends to raise a big 'So what?' in the outside world.

Neale interlaces attempts getting closer and closer to the conjecture, working down from a proof of primes several millions apart to under 600, adding in other, related mathematical work, for example on building numbers from squares and combinations of primes, but increasingly it's a frustrating read, partially due to necessary over-simplification. Time and again we're told about something, but effectively that it's too complicated for us to understand (or we'll come back to it in a later chapter), and this doesn't help make the subject approachable. I understand that a particular mathematical technique may be too complicated to grasp, but if so, I'm not sure there's any point telling us about it.

Part of the trouble is, most of us can only really get excited about maths if it has an application - and very little of what's described here does as yet. I'm not saying that pure mathematics is a waste of time. Not at all. Like all pure research, you never know when it will prove valuable. Obscure sounding maths such as symmetry groups, imaginary numbers and n-dimensional space have all proved extremely valuable to physics. It's just that while the topic remain abstract, it can be difficult to work up much enthusiasm for it.

At the beginning of the book, Neale draws a parallel with rock climbing, and that we are to the mathematicians scaling the heights like someone enjoying a stroll below and admiring their skill. And, in a way, this analogy works too well. We can certainly be impressed by that ability - but a lot of us also see rock climbing as a waste of time and consider it as interesting if you aren't actually doing it as watching paint dry.

It's not impossible to make obscure mathematics interesting - Simon Singh proved this with Fermat's Last Theorem. But that was achieved with writing skill by spending most of the book away from the obscure aspects. I'm beginning to suspect that making high level mathematics approachable is even more difficult than doing that maths in the first place.


Hardback:  

Kindle:  



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 &…

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…