Skip to main content

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).


Hardback:  

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Ancestral Night (SF) - Elizabeth Bear *****

Only a couple of weeks ago, reviewing a 1960s SF book, I bemoaned the fact that science fiction novels of ideas are less common now. Although it is correctly labelled a space opera, Ancestral Night delivers ideas with aplomb.

Let's deal with the space opera aspect first. Elizabeth Bear provides some excellent adventure scenes in space, and we've the usual mix of huge spaceships and interesting aliens. Main character Haimey Dz is an engineer on a ship that salvages wrecks - but, as we gradually discover - she also has a forgotten past. A major feature of the storyline (one that seems to link to the medieval idea of the lost wisdom of the past) is ancient technology from a long-dead race with capabilities, notably manipulating spacetime mentally (Bear has yet to point out that the travel technologies used here could manipulate time as well as space), which fit well with Arthur C. Clarke's magic definition.

I particularly liked the (surely intentional) nods to the much-misse…

The Creativity Code - Marcus du Sautoy *****

At first glance this might just be another 'What AI is good at and not so good at' title. And in a way, it is. But, wow, what a brilliant book! Marcus du Sautoy takes us on a tour of what artificial intelligence has achieved (and possibly can in the future achieve) in a range of fields from his own of mathematics, through game playing, music, art and more.

After a little discussion of what creativity is, we start off with the now very familiar story of DeepMind's AlphaGo and its astonishing ability to take on the hugely challenging game of Go. Even though I've read about this many times before, du Sautoy, as a Go player and mathematician, gives a real feel for why this was such a triumph - and so shocking. Not surprisingly he is also wonderful on what mathematicians actually do, how computers have helped them to date and how they have the potential to do far more in the future. After all, mathematics is by far the closest science to game playing, as it has strict rule…

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…