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

De/Cipher - Mark Frary ****

I was a little doubtful when I first saw this book. Although it has the intriguing tagline 'The greatest codes ever invented and how to crack them' the combination of a small format hardback and gratuitous illustrations made me suspect it would be a lightweight, minimal content, Janet and John approach to codes and ciphers. Thankfully, in reality Mark Frary manages to pack a remarkable amount of content into De/Cipher's slim form.

Not only do we get some history on and instructions to use a whole range of ciphers, there are engaging little articles on historical codebreakers and useful guidance on techniques to break the simpler ciphers. The broadly historical structure takes the reader through basic alphabetic manipulation, keys, electronic cryptography, one time pads and so on, all the way up to modern public key encryption and a short section on quantum cryptography. 

We even get articles on some of the best known unsolved ciphers, such as the Dorabella and the Voynich ma…

Paul McAuley - Four Way Interview

Paul McAuley won the Philip K. Dick Award for his first novel and has gone on to win the Arthur C. Clarke, British Fantasy, Sidewise and John W. Campbell Awards. He gave up his position as a research biologist to write full-time. He lives in London. His latest novel is Austral.


Why science fiction?

For one thing, I fell in love with science fiction at an early age, and haven’t yet fallen out of love with it (although I have flirted with other genres). For another, we’re living in an increasingly science-fictional present. Every day brings headlines that could have been ripped from a science-fiction story. Giant robot battle: Who knew a duel between chainsaw-armed mech suits could be so boring? for instance. Or, Roy Orbison hologram to embark on UK tour in 2018. And looming above all this, like Hokusai’s famous wave, are the ongoing changes caused by global warming and climate change, which is just one consequence of human activity having become the dominant force of change on the planet…

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…