Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Mathematics and Art: a cultural history - Lynn Gamwell ****

I have to start by saying that I have never really understood the point of coffee table books. There is no way anyone is going to comfortably read Mathematics + Art as it's around 25 cm by 32 cm, and weighs in at a wrist-crunching 3 kg, heavier than many laptops. (The price is fairly wallet-crunching too.) Although it is heavily and beautifully illustrated, though, this is much more than just a picture book of images with a mathematical association. It is a genuinely interesting text, running across over 500 pages, which I found I liked far more than I wanted to.

While there is, as is often the case with this kind of attempt to link science and the arts, sometimes a rather tenuous link to the mathematics, it is still fascinating to discover how the influence of maths on culture at large has had an impact on the arts. Sometimes this is in a quite explicit form, where an image, say, is mathematically derived or features a mathematician at work, while on other occasions it's a much more subtle connection where a topic or context is derived from the way mathematics is influencing the world at large.

Lynn Gamwell does not shy away from including a surprising amount of detail about the maths itself, with occasional boxes explaining everything from calculus to the double slit experiment in quantum physics. Her writing style feels rather closer to that of a textbook than a work intended for a wide audience, but it is nonetheless reasonably approachable, and time and again the illustrations capture the attention and the imagination.

An oddity, then - but a genuinely interesting one.
Review by Brian Clegg

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