Friday, 14 January 2005

Mathematics with Love – Mary Stopes-Roe *****

Admittedly it’s early days (this review is written in January), but this, for me, is the surprise hit of the year so far! I approached this book with trepidation, but found it absolutely delightful. It is described on the cover as the “courtship correspondence of Barnes Wallis, inventor of the bouncing bomb”, and contains a series of letters between Wallis and his cousin and eventual wife Molly Bloxham, along with some useful annotation by their daughter, Mary. The courtship itself is not without difficulties, as Wallis was 18 years older than the 17-year-old Molly at the start of the correspondence, and her father, not surprisingly, wasn’t too pleased about the interest of such an elderly suitor, but that isn’t the only reason the letters are interesting – it’s also because of maths, and Wallis’s position in the UK as the engineering hero of the Second World War. (Incidentally, it seemed very strange to see letters addressed to “Barnes” – I had always assumed Barnes Wallis was a bit like Fox Talbot, but Barnes was, in fact, his first name.)
The letters are reminiscent of a mix of three very different sources. The first is a series of letters written by the German mathematician, Leonhard Euler in the mid eighteenth century, a correspondence with the Princess d’Anhalt Dessau, one of the Prussian king’s nieces. Euler gave the princess a correspondence course in science – and in a similar way, Barnes Wallis gives Molly lessons in mathematics. It seems she needed it for her college course, but had been taught no science, and little useful maths at school (not right for a gel, you know). The second reflection are the letters of Lewis Carroll. There is often a similar nonsense humour, particularly to the letters from Wallis, that is very reminiscent of Carroll, as is the basic writing style, even though these letters were started in the 1920s, 60 years after Carroll’s Alice books were written. The third flavour here is pure Enid Blighton. This once hugely popular UK children’s author wrote books full of ripping adventures and jolly japes – and the language of our pair is pure Blighton.
Why is the book so good? It’s partially a glimpse into a world really not far away in time, yet far removed from our own. We are inclined to sympathise more with the German maid who doesn’t understand Wallis’s desire for a cold bath, that with Barnes and Molly who seem to think daily cold baths are a normal and desirable thing, and the maid’s incomprehension some strange foreign trait. It’s also interesting from the glimpses of Wallis’s work, on airships at this stage in his career, in a complex and difficult time for Europe. In the UK, at least, Barnes Wallis is remembered as an engineering genius for his invention of bombs that could bounce across the surface of water then hit and destroy a dam. In practice the bombs were of mixed value, and hardly used, but he is a name that resonates with anyone who was alive, or whose parents were alive, in the Second World War.
There are some snags. Although Wallis does a surprisingly good job, particularly on calculus and a smidgen of physics, the maths can be dull, especially trigonometry (he admits this himself) – though you can skip through much of this without losing the thread. And the illustrations aren’t very effective. Wallis included excellent hand-drawn diagrams, but as reproduced in the book they are faint and not always easy to read. Also the final quarter or so lacks content as both the maths and much discussion of Wallis’s work stops as he is given permission to express his love more explicitly by his future father-in-law. Finally, the sheer ever-so-reserved character of the period can get terribly (terribly, terribly, old thing) wearing. You can only take so much “I say, you must find my letters jolly boring because I really am not awfully good at this sort of thing, so I’d quite understand it if you decided you didn’t want me to write again” type of comment. But it’s bearable, and worth it for the overall effect.
I really, really don’t know why this book is so effective. It really shouldn’t be. No really. But it is.
Review by Brian Clegg

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