Skip to main content

The Perfect Shape: Spiral Stories - Øyvind Hammer

At first sight, a book with 53 chapters all about spirals from a mathematical viewpoint sounds up there with watching paint dry in the entertainment stakes. However, there is no need for those who don't find Euclid an entertaining holiday read to turn away - because Øyvind Hammer uses the concept of a spiral as a jumping off point to cover everything from architecture to biology, from tiling to toilet paper. That word 'stories' in the title is really important. Unlike some academics, Hammer really understands the importance of narrative in getting science across.

The mathematical aspect is always lurking in the background, and Hammer is not afraid to bring in equations regularly, but to be honest, you can read the book and still enjoy it while ignoring all the maths and entirely failing to remember the difference between a logarithmic, hyperbolic or Archimedes spiral, let alone a lituus (which my spellchecker thinks should be a litmus). 

What makes the book a genuinely enjoyable read is the way that Hammer meanders around so many bits of contextual background, whether we are being stunned by the impossible looking Malwiya minaret in Samarra, Iraq (a conical helix) or marvelling at the fossilised handiwork of the 'daemon beavers of Nebraska', looking for all the world like a 3 metre high stone drill bit. The clear colour illustrations really help, as does Hammer's tongue-in-cheek, chatty style.

I'll be honest, there are one or two chapters that feel a little samey - it's almost inevitable with 53 of them, varying from a couple of pages to quite lengthy sections (on mollusc shells, for instance). It's the sort of book where you shouldn't feel guilty about skipping a page or two if it isn't really your thing, as something new and wonderful will be along soon. I also found the lack of flow between the chapters made the book feel fragmented. But on the other hand it also made it good for dipping into.

I always think a good measure of the 'wow factor' of a book is whether you can resist reading out a bit (or showing a picture) to someone nearby. I certainly couldn't. This isn't a book for absolute everyone - if maths and the natural world really turn you off, it won't work for you. But otherwise, Hammer has achieved the seemingly impossible, in making spirals (and helixes) a fun topic. It's even relatively cheap for a good hardback (a rarity from an academic publisher).


Hardback:  

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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The God Game (SF) - Danny Tobey *****

Wow. I'm not sure I've ever read a book that was quite such an adrenaline rush - certainly it has been a long time since I've read a science fiction title which has kept me wanting to get back to it and read more so fiercely. 

In some ways, what we have here is a cyber-SF equivalent of Stephen King's It. A bunch of misfit American high school students face a remarkably powerful evil adversary - though in this case, at the beginning, their foe appears to be able to transform their worlds for the better.

Rather than a supernatural evil, the students take on a rogue AI computer game that thinks it is a god - and has the powers to back its belief. Playing the game is a mix of a virtual reality adventure like Pokemon Go and a real world treasure hunt. Players can get rewards for carrying out tasks - delivering a parcel, for example, which can be used to buy favours, abilities in the game and real objects. But once you are in the game, it doesn't want to let you go and is …

Uncertainty - Kostas Kampourakis and Kevin McCain ***

This is intended as a follow-on to Stuart Firestein's two books, the excellent Ignorance and its sequel, Failure, which cut through some of the myths about the nature of science and how it's not so much about facts as about what we don't know and how we search for explanations. The authors of Uncertainty do pretty much what they set out to do in explaining the significance of uncertainty and why it can make it difficult to present scientific findings to the public, who expect black-and-white facts, not grey probabilities, which can seem to some like dithering.

However, I didn't get on awfully well with the book. A minor issue was the size - it was just too physically small to hold comfortably, which was irritating. More significantly, it felt like a magazine article that was inflated to make a book. There really was only one essential point made over and over again, with a handful of repeated examples. I want something more from a book - more context and depth - that …

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …