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Celestial Tapestry - Nicholas Mee ****

There was an old tradition amongst the landed gentry of collecting a 'cabinet of curiosities' - an unstructured collection of interesting stuff they had picked up on their travels. In many ways, Celestial Tapestry feels like a cabinet of curiosities of the mind, with interesting things linking maths and the the world, particularly the arts, that Nicholas Mee has picked up.

It is delightful being able to be transported by Mee on a number of distinctly varied trains of thought and diversions, all with shiny, full colour illustrations. (If I have one complaint about the pictures, it would have been better if this had been a coffee table sized book, so the beautiful images could have been bigger.)

The book is structured into six sections: the fabric of space, time and matter; weaving numbers and patterns; drawing out the golden threads; higher space and a deeper reality; wandering round the knot garden; and casting the celestial net. However, these heading don't really give a feel for how the topics jump around, making enjoyable and unexpected connections. So, for example, the very first topic 'Into the labyrinth' takes us through literal labyrinths to the Hereford Mappa Mundi to Dante's Divine Comedy, before we jump onto Earth, Air, Fire and Water, where we discover, for example, that Henry I's infamous death from a 'surfeit of lampreys' was not a matter of overeating, but was considered to be a problem due to consuming food that was cold and wet, which was supposed to have weighed on his phlegmatic nature.

Although each chapter has a theme, the flow from item to item can sometimes be a little abrupt and episodic. Many of the topics also were covered too briefly. For example, turf mazes are mentioned but not the near-hypnotic tradition of running them, and the wheel of fortune is brought into a section on medieval clocks without any mention of Carmina Burana. The very best segments were where Mee slowed down and spent longer on a single topic. I loved the section, for example, on the Holbein painting The Ambassadors, where we got a lot more depth on the fascinating detail of the painting.

The book works best where it's strongly linking mathematical and scientific concepts and the world around us through art. For me, the weakest section was the one on knot theory - clearly a big passion of Mee's, but one that is considerably more abstract, making it seem less effective.

You can always tell if a book is good if you can't wait to get back to it. That was definitely the case here. A little gem.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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