Skip to main content

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


Popular posts from this blog

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…

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…

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 …