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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.
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 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…
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…