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

Lost in Math - Sabine Hossenfelder *****

One of my favourite illustrations from a science title was in Fred Hoyle's book on his quasi-steady state theory. It shows a large flock of geese all following each other, which he likened to the state of theoretical physics. In the very readable Lost in Math, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder exposes the way that in certain areas of physics, this is all too realistic a picture. (Hossenfelder gives Hoyle's cosmological theory short shrift, incidentally, though, to be fair, it wasn't given anywhere near as many opportunities to be patched up to match observations as the current version of big bang with inflation.)

Lost in Math is a very powerful analysis of what has gone wrong in the way that some aspects of physics are undertaken. Until the twentieth century, scientists made observations and experiments and theoreticians looked for theories which explained them, which could then be tested against further experiments and observations. Now, particularly in particle physics, it…

Gravity! - Pierre Binétruy ****

I had to really restrain myself from adopting the approach taken by The Register in referring to Yahoo! by putting an exclamation mark after every word in the text when faced with reviewing Gravity! One thing to be said about the punctuation, though, is it makes it easier to search for amongst a whole lot of books on gravity and gravitational waves (the subtitle is 'the quest for gravitational waves') since their discovery in 2015.

Despite the subtitle, Pierre Binétruy gives us far more - in fact, gravitational waves don't come into it until page 160, which makes it really more of a book about gravity with a bit on gravitational waves tacked on than a true exploration of the quest. 

However, those early pages aren't wasted - Binétruy gives us plenty of detail on all kinds of background, for example plunging in to tell us about element synthesis, something you wouldn't expect in a book on gravitational waves. I also really liked a little section on experiments you can…

Brain Based Enterprises - Peter Cook ****

A quick flag on this one: it's a management/business book, and the four star rating is with that in mind. Brain Based Enterprises does contain a surprising amount of science, considering this, which is why it's here, but don't expect it to be like a four star pure science book.

This is an eclectic attack on the status quo of our ideas about business. Peter Cook suggest that much of current business simply isn't oriented to the realities of a modern, technological world, and that we need to handle things very differently in a knowledge-based economy.

The book is divided into three sections. For me, the most interesting was the first 'brainy people' part, as my own business doesn't have teams and such - but for those who do there are also 'brainy teams' and 'brainy enterprises' sections. Cook stirs together a heady mix of science - from psychology to economics - music (a passion of his and a significant part of the way he works) and business the…