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 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lucy Jane Santos - Four Way Interview

Lucy Jane Santos is an expert in the history of 20th century leisure, health and beauty, with a particular interest in (some might say obsession with) the cultural history of radioactivity. Writes & talks (a lot) about cocktails and radium. Her debut book Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium was published by Icon Books in July 2020.

Why science?

I have always been fascinated by the idea of science especially our daily interactions with and understandings of science – especially in a beauty context. I could spend hours pondering the labels of things on my bathroom shelf. What is 4-t-butylcyclohexanol (as a random example)? Do I really understand what I am putting on my face and spending my money on? Would it change my purchase habits if I did?  

Why this book?

This book came from an accidental discovery – that there was a product called Tho Radia which contained radium and thorium. I found out about it because I actually bought a pot of it – along with a big batch of other produc…

Rewilding: Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe ****

Those who are enthusiastic about saving the environment often have a mixed relationship with science. They might for example, support organic farming or oppose nuclear power, despite organics having no nutritional benefit and requiring far more land to be used to raise the same amount of crops, while nuclear is a green energy source that should be seen as an essential support to renewables. This same confusion can extend to the concept of rewilding, which is one reason that the subtitle of this book uses the word 'radical'.

As Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe make clear, though, radical change is what is required if we are to encourage ecological recovery. To begin with, we need to provide environments for nature that take in the big picture - thinking not just of individual nature reserves but, for example, of corridors that link areas allowing safe species migration. And we also need to move away from an arbitrary approach to restricting to 'native' species, as sometimes…

Is Einstein Still Right? - Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes ***

If there's one thing that gets a touch tedious in science reporting it's the news headlines that some new observation or experiment 'proves Einstein right' - as if we're still not sure about relativity. At first glance that's what this book does too, but in reality Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes are celebrating the effectiveness of the general theory of relativity, while being conscious that there may still be situations where, for whatever reason, the general theory is not sufficient.

It's a genuinely interesting book - what Will and Yunes do is take experiments that are probably familiar to the regular popular science reader already and expand on the simplified view of them we are usually given. So, for example, one of the first things they mention is the tower experiments to show the effect of gravitational red shift. I was aware of these experiments, but what we get here goes beyond the basics of the conceptual experiment to deal with the realities of d…