Thursday, 4 October 2007

A Certain Ambiguity – Gaurav Suri & Hartosh Singh Bal ***(**)

This is one of the very few books we have been unable to give a straightforward star rating. The reason is that it has been important to separate the idea and the execution. More on this later.
A Certain Ambiguity is a novel, but a novel with the explicit intention of putting across information about mathematics. This might seem a very new thing to do, but in fact has plenty of historical precedent. For example, when Galileo wrote his two great books, they were in the form of dialogues between fictional characters. Of course they weren’t novels – the novel form didn’t exist – but they did make use of human discussion to help get across complex points to a more general reader.
In A Certain Ambiguity we meet Ravi Kapoor who travels from India to America to further his education, and finds himself increasingly fascinated by both maths and his grandfather, who was a mathematician and had been in the US himself. The storyline interwines Ravi’s experience at college with a gradual uncovering of the reasons his grandfather was jailed for blasphemy, and how his grandfather discussed issues of maths and philosophy with a judge.
First the good stuff, the reason A Certain Ambiguity gets those bracketed five stars. It is a wonderful idea. Popular science is all about getting the joy and wonder of science across to general readers. This is easier with, say, physics or genetics than with maths, which many might find cold and off-putting. Yet Suri and Bal set out to show the genuine joy of discovery that can be there in mathematics, and how knowing about maths can help us understand how human beings understand everything. This is a truly noble aim. Anything that can be done to make science and maths more approachable is well worth the effort. And there are some very effective moments in this novel where Suri and Bal manage to get across mathematical intuitions in a fashion that’s better than anything I’ve seen elsewhere.
However, and there has to be a “however”, it’s a flawed enterprise. Firstly it just isn’t a very good novel. There’s no real feeling of identity with the protagonists – I don’t really care what happens to them – and there’s much too much fake quotation and concentration on jazz that is simply boring. Then there are one or two factual issues that are a little uncomfortable. We hear a Stanford professor say that Galileo invented the telescope – painfully wrong. A judge in the US finds it shocking to have music in church – unlikely unless he was a Quaker, which other comments he makes seems unlikely. The whole lengthy argument over religion gets in the way of both the plot and the maths. The fictional journal entries are both banal and boring. To have Spinoza say “Today I was excommunicated,” is just too like a school essay attempt at a historical character’s journal.
There’s also too much mathematical exposition – more than I would expect in a straight popular maths book, let alone a novel where it breaks the flow. And in the end, the premise that seems to take everyone by surprise – in effect that the “truth” of mathematical systems can’t necessarily be equated with how the physical world works, but stands as a construct in its own right, certainly shouldn’t be a shock to any scientist, and I would have thought wouldn’t take any of the characters in the book by surprise either.
I can’t, in all sincerity, recommend this book either as a novel or as a way to get an understanding of the maths it contains, but I can and do wholeheartedly celebrate the value of the authors’ attempt.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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