Skip to main content

The Universe in Zero Words – Dana Mackenzie *****

In awarding this book five stars I am rather reminded of the infamous Samuel Johnson quote on women preachers: ‘A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.’ Leaving aside that Doctor Johnson might have had to rethink his opinion had he seen Pudsey, the reason I say this is because I’m reviewing a book about mathematical equations. Taken purely as a piece of popular science writing it probably only merits four stars, but I am so amazed that anyone can write a book about a series of equations and make it readable and interesting that I have had to award it five.
When I first saw the title I thought I was about to flick through a nice picture book of astronomical photos, but in fact Dana Mackenzie provides us with plenty of words – it’s just that they are describing these ‘no words’ equations. Mackenzie eases us in gently with the work of the ancient Greeks, then brings us forward in time, allowing the maths (and the equations) to grow in complexity as we go.
What makes the book work so well is that there is plenty of context – we learn about the individuals behind these equations (not always the obvious ones when it comes to, say, Pythagoras) and the historical setting of their devising. There are some rather beautiful hand drawn illustrations of the equations themselves and diagrams (I just wish the handwriting was a little more legible) and the amazing, dog-walking-on-hind-legs feat is that we aren’t turned off by the equations, but rather get some feeling for their beauty and power.
I am not saying this book brings me round to a mathematician’s viewpoint. I still think that their view is too abstract, and that much of the maths they get excited about is hugely ‘so what?’ – but this book really does give you a flavour of why they get so worked up.
Strangely, the book tails off towards the end. This is in part because Mackenzie spends more time on physics (which he is less effective at explaining than maths), and partly because there is less focus on equations. Maxwell’s equations, for example, aren’t explored, just mentioned. Yes, remarkably, by then the reader is so drawn in that we want more equations!
I have two specific gripes apart from this. One is about the introduction. We are told how the great Richard Feynman took on someone with an abacus and beat them on the calculation of cube roots because he knew ‘a famous equation from calculus called Taylor’s formula’ – yet we aren’t told what the equation is. In a book that is all about making equations visible, this rankled for the rest of the book.
The other problem I have is with a bizarre mini-rant that Mackenzie has about those who worry about the impact of mobile phones on their brains. He points out that the photons produced by a mobile phone have not got enough energy to ionise atoms, so don’t present a danger. But this entirely misses the point. After all, the photons produced by microwave ovens aren’t ionising radiation either, but few us would feel comfortable sticking our heads in a functioning microwave. It’s not that I agree with the ‘danger from phones, phone masts and wifi radiation’ lobby – I don’t – but Mackenzie merely muddies the water with this strange irrelevancy.
That’s a very minor complaint, though. If you’ve always been puzzled by mathematical formulae, or wondered why mathematicians bother to get out of bed in the morning, this is the book to let you into their secret world. A remarkable achievement.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I, Mammal - Liam Drew *****

It's rare that a straightforward biology book (with a fair amount of palaeontology thrown in) really grabs my attention, but this one did. Liam Drew really piles in the surprising facts (often surprising to him too) and draws us a wonderful picture of the various aspects of mammals that make them different from other animals. 

More on this in a moment, but I ought to mention the introduction, as you have to get past it to get to the rest, and it might put you off. I'm not sure why many books have an introduction - they often just get in the way of the writing, and this one seemed to go on for ever. So bear with it before you get to the good stuff, starting with the strange puzzle of why some mammals have external testes.

It seems bizarre to have such an important thing for passing on the genes so precariously posed - and it's not that they have to be, as it's not the case with all mammals. Drew mixes his own attempts to think through this intriguing issue with the histor…

Foolproof - Brian Hayes *****

The last time I enjoyed a popular maths book as much as this one was reading Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions as a teenager. The trouble with a lot of ‘fun’ maths books is that they cover material that mathematicians consider fascinating, such as pairs of primes that are only two apart, which fail to raise much excitement in normal human beings. 

Here, all the articles have something a little more to them. So, even though Brian Hayes may be dealing with something fairly abstruse-sounding like the ratio of the volume of an n-dimensional hypersphere to the smallest hypercube that contains it, the article always has an interesting edge - in this case that although the ‘volume’ of the hypersphere grows up to the fifth dimension it gets smaller and smaller thereafter, becoming an almost undetectable part of the hypercube.

If that doesn’t grab you, many articles in this collection aren’t as abstruse, covering everything from random walks to a strange betting game. What'…

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…