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A Brief History of Infinity – Brian Clegg *****
* UPDATED * To include audio download
Clegg has an amiable, easy style; he chats us through complex ideas rather than lecturing to us. Like other good science populists (Isaac Asimov springs immediately to mind), he explores his subject through narrative and anecdote: hanging discussions of infinity onto their historical development puts flesh onto what might easily be dry bones in other writers' hands, and so we have a tour of fascinating personalities and slices of history, a subject breathed into life.
Brian Clegg has just had me revisiting areas of mathematics I haven't even considered since university. And I enjoyed it.
We human beings have trouble with infinity. Philosophers and mathematicians have gone mad contemplating its nature and complexity – and yet it is a concept now routinely used by schoolchildren. In this highly entertaining and stimulating history, Brian Clegg takes us on a tour of that borderland between the extremely large and the ultimate, from Archimedes counting the grains of sand that would fill the universe, to the latest theories on the physical reality of the infinite.
Full of unexpected delights, the history of infinity proves to be a surprisingly human subject. Whether it’s St Augustine contemplating the nature of creation, Newton and Leibniz battling over the ownership of calculus or Cantor’s struggle to publicize his vision of the transfinite, infinity’s fascination remains the way it brings together the everyday and the extraordinary, prosaic daily life and the esoteric. Exploring the infinite is nothing more than a journey into paradox.
Although infinity is touched on in many places, as far as we are aware this is the only popular exploration of infinity around – and well worth getting hold of.
Review by Peter Spitz & Keith Brooke (originally on Infinity Plus)
Please note, this title is written by the editor of the Popular Science website. Our review is still an honest opinion – and we could hardly omit the book – but do want to make the connection clear.
The authors of science books are always trying to find new ways to get the message across to their audiences. In Dialogues, Clifford Johnson combines a very modern technique - the graphic novel or comic strip - with an approach that goes back to Ancient Greece - using a dialogue to add life to what might seem a dry message.
We have seen the comic strip approach trying to put across quite detailed science before in Mysteries of the Quantum Universe. As with that book, Dialogues manages to cover a fair amount of actual physics, but I still feel that the medium just wastes vast acres of page to say very little at all. This is brought home here because quite a lot of the sections of Dialogues start with several pages with no text on at all, just setting up the scenario.
As for using a discussion between two people to put a message across, Johnson makes the point that, for instance, Galileo's very readable masterpiece Two New Sciences is in the form of a dialogue (more accurately a discu…
Liam Drew is a writer and former neurobiologist. he has a PhD in sensory biology from University College, London and spent 12 years researching schizophrenia, pain and the birth of new neurons in the adult mammalian brain. His writing has appeared in Nature, New Scientist, Slate and the Guardian. He lives in Kent with his wife and two daughters. His new book is I, Mammal.
As hackneyed as it is to say, I think I owe my fascination with science to a great teacher – in my case, Ian West, my A-level biology teacher. Before sixth form, I had a real passion for the elegance and logic of maths, from which a basic competence at science at school arose. But I feel like I mainly enjoyed school science in the way a schoolkid enjoys being good at stuff, rather than it being a passion.
Ian was a revelation to me. He was a stern and divisive character, but I loved the way he taught. He began every lesson by providing us with a series of observations and fact, then, gradually, between …
This is an interesting book, even if it probably tries to be too many things to too many people. I wondered from the cover design whether it was a children's book, but the publisher's website (and the back of the book) resolutely refuse to categorise it as such. The back copy doesn't help by saying that it will 'inspire trailblazers and pioneers of all ages.' As I belong to the set 'all ages' I thought I'd give it a go.
Inside are featured the 'stories of fifty inspirational women who have been fundamental to the story of humans in space.' So, in some ways, A Galaxy of Her Own presents the other side of the coin to Angela Saini's excellent Inferior. But, inevitably, given the format, it can hardly provide the same level of discourse.
Despite that 'all ages' comment and the lack of children's book labelling we get a bit of a hint when we get to a bookplate page in the form of a Galaxy Pioneers security pass (with the rather worrying…