Skip to main content

Beautiful Geometry – Eli Maor and Eugene Jost ***

On the whole, art/science collaborations make me feel faintly queasy. From the science side there seems to be a puppy-like desperation to be loved and normal. ‘Look, I’m not really a nerd,’ they seem to say, ‘I don’t always speak incomprehensibly in technical jargon. I can do art.’ Meanwhile, the art side seems to have far too much in common with those pedlars of woo who invest their snake oil with (what they think is) scientific gravitas by using terms from quantum physics to dress up their baloney.
So, if I’m honest, I came to this near coffee-table book sized collaboration between a mathematician and an artist with all the enthusiasm of someone on a trip to the dentist. As it happens, my assessment was a little harsh, because the art isn’t allowed to dominate, as is usually the case. Here what we’ve got is a series of short essays on principles of mathematics, each accompanied by a handsome, if fairly basic full page colour art work. So in a way it’s less like one of the dreaded collaborations than a book like 30 Second Maths where you get a mini-exposition accompanied by an illustration (though I have to say the 30 Second illustrations are less geometric and hence usually more interesting).
The advantage this book has over the 30 Second approach is that it allows Eli Maor to give us considerably more text on his topics, so there can be a better exploration and less of the rigid constraint of a format. For some of the topics this is wonderful as they really need more exploration. Lissaojous figures, for instance, and infinite gaskets like the Sierpinski triangle. But to be honest, unless you are a mathematician, it’s hard to get too excited about most of the topics.
Take the opening of the essay on quadrilaterals. ‘Here is a little known jewel of a theorem,’ says Maor, ‘that never fails to amaze me: take any quadrilateral (four sided polygon), connect the midpoints of adjacent sides and – surprise – you’ll get a parallelogram!’ Now, to be honest, my reaction to this was ‘He should get out more.’ Just as only parents could be persuaded their baby is the most amazing thing that ever existed, only a mathematician would find this ‘jewel’ amazing.
So, if you get your kicks from everything from Pythagoras’ theorem (which is so exciting it gets two entries) to Steiner’s porism (no, it’s not infectious), this could be the book for you. But if you don’t, the essays could get a tad tedious in places, and the art, while workmanlike, was never sufficient to make looking at the book worthwhile on its own. It’s a case of ‘Nice try, but it doesn’t work for me.’ It might for you. What do I know about art? But you attempt it at your own risk. (Incidentally, only go for the Kindle book if viewing it on a tablet – a traditional black and white Kindle would lose much of the art’s impact.)

Hardback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Ancestral Night (SF) - Elizabeth Bear *****

Only a couple of weeks ago, reviewing a 1960s SF book, I bemoaned the fact that science fiction novels of ideas are less common now. Although it is correctly labelled a space opera, Ancestral Night delivers ideas with aplomb.

Let's deal with the space opera aspect first. Elizabeth Bear provides some excellent adventure scenes in space, and we've the usual mix of huge spaceships and interesting aliens. Main character Haimey Dz is an engineer on a ship that salvages wrecks - but, as we gradually discover - she also has a forgotten past. A major feature of the storyline (one that seems to link to the medieval idea of the lost wisdom of the past) is ancient technology from a long-dead race with capabilities, notably manipulating spacetime mentally (Bear has yet to point out that the travel technologies used here could manipulate time as well as space), which fit well with Arthur C. Clarke's magic definition.

I particularly liked the (surely intentional) nods to the much-misse…

The Creativity Code - Marcus du Sautoy *****

At first glance this might just be another 'What AI is good at and not so good at' title. And in a way, it is. But, wow, what a brilliant book! Marcus du Sautoy takes us on a tour of what artificial intelligence has achieved (and possibly can in the future achieve) in a range of fields from his own of mathematics, through game playing, music, art and more.

After a little discussion of what creativity is, we start off with the now very familiar story of DeepMind's AlphaGo and its astonishing ability to take on the hugely challenging game of Go. Even though I've read about this many times before, du Sautoy, as a Go player and mathematician, gives a real feel for why this was such a triumph - and so shocking. Not surprisingly he is also wonderful on what mathematicians actually do, how computers have helped them to date and how they have the potential to do far more in the future. After all, mathematics is by far the closest science to game playing, as it has strict rule…

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…