Thursday, 8 October 2009

Eureka Man – Alan Hirshfeld ***

I was really looking forward to reading this book – Archimedes is a fascinating character whose work is usually under-appreciated, and I wanted to know more about him. Unfortunately, after reading the book cover to cover, I still know little more.
It’s not really Alan Hirshfeld’s fault. I had a similar problem when writing a biography of Roger Bacon – when looking back this far there is very little fact to be established about the life and personality of an individual. So you have to do something else. Give context. Talk about his work. Hirshfeld does this, but the way he approaches it didn’t work particularly well for me.
Quite a lot of the context aspect is given over to a potted history of Sicily in the period leading up to Archimedes life. I like history – but this wasn’t the most inspiring historical text, rather old fashioned in its concentration on rulers and battles. We had bits and pieces of Archimedes work – quite a lot, for instance, on his quirky little The Sand Reckoner, which uses the vehicle of working out the number of grains of sand it would take to fill the universe to show how the limited Greek number system can be expanded to handle vast numbers. There’s then a massive chunk – half the whole book – telling the story of the Archimedes palimpsest, where a number of Archimedes’ books, in Greek, some parts previous lost, were discovered under the pages of a prayer book.
This is a great detective story, but I think it’s better told in the book dedicated to it, The Archimedes Codex. Hirshfeld’s approach, as is much of the book, is a bit too breezy in tone and summary in feel.
If you want an overview of the significance of Archimedes’ work, and the context in which it was derived, this isn’t a bad book. And I have to emphasize again just how difficult it is to write biographically about a person that history has only left us legends about. Yet I was still disappointed.
Review by Brian Clegg

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