Skip to main content

Pythagoras’ Revenge (SF) – Arturo Sangalli ***(*)

It’s unusual for us to feature a fiction book in our main reviews section. Pythagoras’ Revenge is a novel that is designed to get across mathematical ideas in a more approachable way. It scores the rather unusual 3.5 stars – because this is a book that is 2/3 good and 1/3 bad.
Let’s start with the good. The concept really works. I read a lot of popular science books and have to read a fiction book about one every third title just to keep my enthusiasm up. Fiction usually grabs the attention better than an popular science book, however well written, and I found that I shot through Arturo Sangalli’s book significantly faster than I would a normal popular science title, because I wanted to read on.
What’s more, the maths is fine – it’s pitched at the right sort of level to interest the general reader without being too painful. For those with a more heavy duty interest, there are one or two proofs in appendices. A lot of the maths is from ancient Greece, and as befits what can, with one hat on, be seen as a popular maths book, there’s a good selection of history and context for the Pythagoreans as well.
But then we come to the 1/3 that’s bad. As a novel, I’m afraid, it’s pretty terrible. It’s not really possible to identify who the main protagonist(s) are, and we don’t care about any of the characters. Although there is a little Da Vinci Code style puzzle, it isn’t particularly interesting, and it’s very much presented as: ‘here’s a puzzle, oh, it could be that, okay, we’ve solved it.’ There’s no real tension. The central plot line involving possible reincarnation stretches disbelief without any real reward for doing so. And, perhaps worst of all, it doesn’t have the proper flow of a novel. There are several instances where the voice suddenly goes from historic narration to simple fact telling. So we hear about something happening in Pythagoras’ time… then suddenly there’s a few pages of pure maths exposition that could have come from any popular maths book, with no sense that the characters are saying or thinking what we’re told. It just plonks in.
However, I think it’s a very brave attempt, and shows that this really is a way of getting across science that can work – and would work even better if it was framed in a decently written novel. I said I’d hurried through because I wanted to read on. In part this was because I was rushing through some of the more excruciating storyline, but it also was because the story form gives a natural inclination to want to read more. Human beings are story making animals, and this book shows that there is an opportunity to make use of this approach in the field. A fascinating attempt.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

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…

Jim Baggott - Four Way Interview

Jim Baggott is a freelance science writer. He trained as a scientist, completing a doctorate in physical chemistry at Oxford in the early 80s, before embarking on post-doctoral research studies at Oxford and at Stanford University in California. He gave up a tenured lectureship at the University of Reading after five years in order to gain experience in the commercial world. He worked for Shell International Petroleum for 11 years before leaving to establish his own business consultancy and training practice. He writes about science, science history and philosophy in what spare time he can find. His books include Atomic: The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb (2009), Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’ (2012), Mass: The Quest to Understand Matter from Greek Atoms to Quantum Fields (2017), and, most recently, Quantum Space: Loop Quantum Gravity and the Search for the Structure of Space, Time, and the Universe (2018). For more info see: www…

Quantum Space: Jim Baggott *****

There's no doubt that Jim Baggott is one of the best popular science writers currently active. He specialises in taking really difficult topics and giving a more in-depth look at them than most of his peers. The majority of the time he achieves with a fluid writing style that remains easily readable, though inevitably there are some aspects that are difficult for the readers to get their heads around - and this is certainly true of his latest title Quantum Space, which takes on loop quantum gravity.

As Baggott points out, you could easily think that string theory was the only game in town when it comes to the ultimate challenge in physics, finding a way to unify the currently incompatible general theory of relativity and quantum theory. Between them, these two behemoths of twentieth century physics underlie the vast bulk of physics very well - but they simply can't be put together. String theory (and its big brother M-theory, which as Baggott points out, is not actually a the…