Skip to main content

Pythagoras – Kitty Ferguson ****

As an author of a biography of Roger Bacon, whose sole biographical details are limited to passing references in his books, I’ve a lot of sympathy with the plight of Kitty Ferguson in writing about Pythagoras. At least with Bacon I had his writing and science to call upon in The First Scientist, but Ferguson admits early on that everything there is to be said for certain about Pythagoras can be fitted in a paragraph. We don’t really know anything much about him, nor are there any books by him. To make matters worse, the Pythagoreans didn’t believe in sharing their wisdom with the common herd, so much of what they thought was kept secret.
We discover that Pythagoras wasn’t even responsible for that famous theorem – the concept of a mathematical proof didn’t really exist in his time and the method of solving it was around well before Pythagoras.
However what the Pythagoreans do seem responsible is the broad sweep of applying a mathematical approach to understanding the universe (even if the way the used it was mostly rubbish) and did come up with one scientific discovery in terms of the way musical harmonics work with doubling of the length of strings etc. (They also came up with less useful imaginings about the ‘music of the spheres’ but you can’t have everything.)
So what is Ferguson to do? She manages to make the subject interesting and relevant by following through the influence of Pythagorean ideas (or, for that matter, ideas that were probably incorrectly ascribed to Pythagoras and his followers) all the way to the twentieth century. So you are as likely to meet Bertrand Russell in these pages as an Ancient Greek.
On the whole this works well. There were times when the exhaustive pursuit of Pythagorean concepts (this is a fairly fat book at 330 pages plus notes, quite remarkable considering how little we know about Pythagoras and his school) gets a trifle tedious. There are many different names to handle and discussions of the subtlety of whether something is truly Pythagorean or just labelled this for various reasons. And I would have liked a bit more maths and a bit less woffle on the ‘music of the spheres’ a Pythagorean (probably) idea that is just silly.
However, that didn’t stop this being a noble effort to throw more light on a philosophy that is often referred to without really understanding what it is – and in the end we have to come back to that magnificent imaginative leap of linking physical reality and number. Unlike Ferguson’s earlier book Measuring the Universe, this one does sometimes capture the imagination and gives significant room for thought.
Paperback (US is hardback):  
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…