Skip to main content

Significant Figures - Ian Stewart ****

Ian Stewart's books can be excellent, but sometimes he forgets that much maths that excites mathematicians produces from the mere mortal a response of 'So what?' When he's on form, though, he's very good - and in this book he definitely hits the spot.

Inevitably with a book like this, giving short summaries of the lives and works of leading mathematicians, it's easy to question the gaps. Where are John Wallis and assorted Bernoullis, for example? And there is one entry, frankly that seems bizarre. I can see no reason whatsoever for Ada King to be here (though I appreciate his use of her surname, rather than using her title). Whatever Stewart's thinking, there is absolutely nothing in this entry to suggest that King was in any sense a 'trailblazing mathematician' (as the subtitle puts it).

However, I really enjoyed the range of mathematicians covered, with a good mix of familiar figures (Archimedes and Newton, for example) to those I'm ashamed to say I've never heard of, or knew the name and very little else (Nikolai Lobachevsky springs to mind). As much as possible, Stewart describes their mathematical achievements in an approachable way, though sometimes his explanations get fairly dense, or he does use a term that isn't in common usage without explaining it.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the coverage of the maths is sometimes better than the historical content. While I loved the dramatic nature of the Cardano entry (it made me think I need to look out this sixteenth century mathematician's autobiography) we got, for instance, a very vanilla version of Newton's biography - sustaining the now generally doubted idea that Newton did much of his work in the 2 years that Cambridge was suspended due to plague and pointing out that Newton was only the second ever scientist to be knighted, but not that neither he nor Francis Bacon were knighted because of anything to do with science (assuming you can call Bacon a scientist).

There is no doubt that mathematicians tend to be less familiar as people than are scientists. Even if you've used Fourier analysis, say, you may well have little idea of who Fourier was and how the technique came about. Stewart has done a real service here. I think, perhaps, the ideal audience would be scientists who use these mathematicians' work without being aware of the person behind it, but as long as the reader has a degree of tolerance for mathematical terminology and exposition (if you get the pun in the title, you should be fine), it ought to prove an appealing read.

Hardback:  
Kindle:  

Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Dialogues - Clifford Johnson ***

The authors of science books are always trying to find new ways to get the message across to their audiences. In Dialogues, Clifford Johnson combines a very modern technique - the graphic novel or comic strip - with an approach that goes back to Ancient Greece - using a dialogue to add life to what might seem a dry message.

We have seen the comic strip approach trying to put across quite detailed science before in Mysteries of the Quantum Universe. As with that book, Dialogues manages to cover a fair amount of actual physics, but I still feel that the medium just wastes vast acres of page to say very little at all. This is brought home here because quite a lot of the sections of Dialogues start with several pages with no text on at all, just setting up the scenario.

As for using a discussion between two people to put a message across, Johnson makes the point that, for instance, Galileo's very readable masterpiece Two New Sciences is in the form of a dialogue (more accurately a discu…

Liam Drew - Four Way Interview

Liam Drew is a writer and former neurobiologist. he has a PhD in sensory biology from University College, London and spent 12 years researching schizophrenia, pain and the birth of new neurons in the adult mammalian brain. His writing has appeared in Nature, New Scientist, Slate and the Guardian. He lives in Kent with his wife and two daughters. His new book is I, Mammal.

Why science?

As hackneyed as it is to say, I think I owe my fascination with science to a great teacher – in my case, Ian West, my A-level biology teacher.  Before sixth form, I had a real passion for the elegance and logic of maths, from which a basic competence at science at school arose.  But I feel like I mainly enjoyed school science in the way a schoolkid enjoys being good at stuff, rather than it being a passion.

Ian was a revelation to me.  He was a stern and divisive character, but I loved the way he taught.  He began every lesson by providing us with a series of observations and fact, then, gradually, between …

A Galaxy of Her Own - Libby Jackson ****

This is an interesting book, even if it probably tries to be too many things to too many people. I wondered from the cover design whether it was a children's book, but the publisher's website (and the back of the book) resolutely refuse to categorise it as such. The back copy doesn't help by saying that it will 'inspire trailblazers and pioneers of all ages.' As I belong to the set 'all ages' I thought I'd give it a go.

Inside are featured the 'stories of fifty inspirational women who have been fundamental to the story of humans in space.' So, in some ways, A Galaxy of Her Own presents the other side of the coin to Angela Saini's excellent Inferior. But, inevitably, given the format, it can hardly provide the same level of discourse.

Despite that 'all ages' comment and the lack of children's book labelling we get a bit of a hint when we get to a bookplate page in the form of a Galaxy Pioneers security pass (with the rather worrying…