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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).

Review by Brian Clegg


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