Skip to main content

The Seduction of Curves - Allan McRobie *****

Having recently been somewhat underwhelmed by a science/art crossover book, I was expecting to be equally unimpressed by The Seduction of Curves, which promises to cover 'the lines of beauty that connect mathematics, art and the nude' - but the result is, in truth, stunning (in a good way).

Using both examples from art and impressive original photography by Helena Weightman, Allan McRobie introduces us to the significant shapes that form the 'alphabet' of catastrophe theory. This sounds like something dealing with sudden and drastic failures of systems - and certainly it can be involved in them. But at its heart, it's about mathematical functions where a small change in a parameter makes a sudden and distinctive shift in the output - from example when a curve suddenly takes a totally different direction (as it often does on the contours of the human body).

What makes this very different from the other title I mentioned is that this is not just a coffee table book of pretty pictures with captions to explain them. It is a proper book, with text worth reading, illustrated by Weightman's subtle photographs (the cover is a good example of her approach) and by works of art. Just occasionally, the art perhaps dominates a little much (I'm thinking of the Moiré fringes section), but mostly the balance is such that it should appeal both to art lovers and those with a real interest in the mathematical basis.

It's such an original and impressive book, I hate to bring up a negative, but I think it would have benefited from having an introductory chapter giving us more basic background on catastrophe theory before plunging into the curves and the art/science crossover in the text. Without that, it felt that some of the mathematical side was presented without enough context.

The nudes are tasteful and are not the only photographic subjects by any means - there's an impressive section, for example, on catastrophe optics and another on gravitational lensing which, though not as visually effective as some of the rest of the book, gives a feel for a wider field of application of catastrophe theory.

The whole science/art crossover thing usually seems a feeble attempt to make science more approachable to arty types who would run a mile at the mention of a theory or a formula. (C. P. Snow's two cultures are alive and well.) When someone does an art installation based at CERN, say, it has the feel of a community project which seemed a good idea at the time, but does nothing to make the science more approachable. This is the first example I've ever seen of a book where it all comes together in a beautiful and cohesive whole.


Hardback:  


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Conjuring the Universe - Peter Atkins *****

It's rare that I'd use the term 'tour de force' when describing a popular science book, but it sprang to mind when I read Conjuring the Universe. It's not that the book's without flaws, but it does something truly original in a delightful way. What's more, the very British Peter Atkins hasn't fallen into the trap that particularly seems to influence US scientists when writing science books for the public of assuming that more is better. Instead of being an unwieldy brick of a book, this is a compact 168 pages that delivers splendidly on the question of where the natural laws came from.

The most obvious comparison is Richard Feynman's (equally compact) The Character of Physical Law - but despite being a great fan of Feynman's, this is the better book. Atkins begins by envisaging a universe emerging from absolutely nothing. While admitting he can't explain how that happened, his newly created universe still bears many resemblances to  nothing a…

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Big Bang (Ladybird Expert) - Marcus Chown ****

As a starting point in assessing this book it's essential to know the cultural background of Ladybird books in the UK. These were a series of cheap, highly illustrated, very thin hardbacks for children, ranging from storybooks to educational non-fiction. They had become very old-fashioned, until new owners Penguin brought back the format with a series of ironic humorous books for adults, inspired by the idea created by the artist Miriam Elia. Now, the 'Ladybird Expert' series are taking on serious non-fiction topics for an adult audience.

Marcus Chown does a remarkable job at packing in information on the big bang, given only around 25 sides of small format paper to work with. He gives us the concepts, plenty about the cosmic microwave background, plus the likes of dark energy, dark matter, inflation and the multiverse. To be honest, the illustrations were largely pointless, apart from maintaining the format, and it might have been better to have had more text - but I felt …