Skip to main content

Poor Robin’s Prophecies – Benjamin Wardhaugh ***

This is an unusual one. It’s reminiscent of that quote on Wagner’s music. Not Woody Allen’s (I can’t listen to that much Wagner. I start getting the urge to conquer Poland.) or Oscar Wilde’s (I like Wagner’s music better than anybody’s. It is so loud that one can talk the whole time without other people hearing what one says.) but Rossini’s – Mr. Wagner has beautiful moments but awful quarters of an hour.
That probably makes the book sound worse than it is (unless you like Wagner). The concept is brilliant. It is looking back at a seventeenth/eighteenth century phenomenon and using it as a hook on which to hang an assessment of the everyday approach to maths in England in that time. The phenomenon in question is Poor Robin’s Prophesies, a long running almanac. In general almanacs were annual publications that threw in what the authors thought of as lots of useful information, from saints’ days to tide tables, with a good dollop of astrology to add zest. Poor Robin was initially primarily a satirical attack on the other almanacs, including saints days like Robin Hood and the day Jane fell off the hen-roost.
Author Benjamin Wardhaugh is at his best when looking at the almanacs and their quirky view on life in those interesting times. Where the book falls down a little is the lengthy sections on how the basics of maths were taught back then, including lengthy commentary on some maths notebooks of the period. I am interested in maths, but these parts left me cold.
There is no doubt there are some real delights here, primarily in the bits that have little to do with science or maths and everything to do with the culture of the period. And it should be of interest to any historian of mathematics. But it’s not a book for everyone.
Hardback:  
Kindle:  
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…