Friday, 6 August 2010

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

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