Skip to main content

Mathematics and Art: a cultural history - Lynn Gamwell ****

I have to start by saying that I have never really understood the point of coffee table books. There is no way anyone is going to comfortably read Mathematics + Art as it's around 25 cm by 32 cm, and weighs in at a wrist-crunching 3 kg, heavier than many laptops. (The price is fairly wallet-crunching too.) Although it is heavily and beautifully illustrated, though, this is much more than just a picture book of images with a mathematical association. It is a genuinely interesting text, running across over 500 pages, which I found I liked far more than I wanted to.

While there is, as is often the case with this kind of attempt to link science and the arts, sometimes a rather tenuous link to the mathematics, it is still fascinating to discover how the influence of maths on culture at large has had an impact on the arts. Sometimes this is in a quite explicit form, where an image, say, is mathematically derived or features a mathematician at work, while on other occasions it's a much more subtle connection where a topic or context is derived from the way mathematics is influencing the world at large.

Lynn Gamwell does not shy away from including a surprising amount of detail about the maths itself, with occasional boxes explaining everything from calculus to the double slit experiment in quantum physics. Her writing style feels rather closer to that of a textbook than a work intended for a wide audience, but it is nonetheless reasonably approachable, and time and again the illustrations capture the attention and the imagination.

An oddity, then - but a genuinely interesting one.
Hardback 

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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Making Sense of Chaos - Doyne Farmer *****

This is a remarkable book, pulling together two key threads - chaos theory and economics. Doyne Farmer has a reputation as someone who breaks the mould: famously, he dropped out of studying physics at graduate level, working with a handful of others to put together a wearable computer (back in the 70s, when such a thing would have seemed pretty much impossible) to enable them to successfully beat the odds at casinos, picking up on the slight biases in roulette wheels. Now, he presents a powerful case for applying chaos theory to economics, modelling economies in a totally different, agent-driven way rather than the traditional approach taken by economists. This combines for me the impact of two books I've read and greatly admired, but in both cases had felt that there needed to be a next step. The first of these was Chaos by James Gleick, which got me all fired up about chaos theory, but proved a bit of a let down as it was great to explain why, for example, it's difficult to

Quantum Drama - Jim Baggott and John Heilbron ***

On a first glance of the cover you might think that Jim Baggott and John Heilbron were brilliant Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein impersonators. In fact Baggott is an excellent popular science writer and Heilbron was an esteemed historian of science, both specialising in quantum physics. There's another way the cover is misleading - you might think this was an in-depth exploration of Bohr and Einstein's relationship. The topics they argued about certainly come into it, but instead this is detailed look at how quantum theory developed. I've read a lot of books on quantum physics, but I've never come across one that goes into such painstaking detail of every step along the way, introducing the work of a good number of physicists who rarely make it into the public eye. These range from John von Neumann - well known but usually sidelined as a quantum physicist - to the likes of Oskar Klein and Hans Kramers. Similarly, Baggott and Heilbron go into many (many) steps along the w

Charge - Frank Close ****

Anyone who writes popular science books that are so thick they could act as doorstops should pay more attention to what Frank Close achieves. In a slim, small volume he manages to pack in a huge amount of information without compromising at all on quality. His latest such book is Charge - dealing with various types of charge from electrical to colour (in the quark sense). This starts off brilliantly with a point about electrical charge that had never occurred to me. Close tells us that with every breath you inhale sufficient electrons to absorb a charge of around 15,000 coulombs 'enough to spark 1000 bolts of lightning'. And if breathing steadily, the equivalent current would be about 3,000 amps. Thankfully, though, the balancing positive charge from the nucleus means you don't fry. (This is slightly misleading as the comparison with lightning only works if you consider charge - the current in a lightning bolt is typically about 10 times higher as it lasts a much briefer t