Skip to main content

Prime Suspects - Andrew Granville and Jennifer Granville **

Every now and then someone comes up with the bright idea of doing popular science (or in this case, popular maths) using the graphic novel format. Although I'm not a great fan of the genre, because it so vastly reduces the number of words available, making it very difficult to put across complex or nuanced information, I can see why the concept appeals. But for me, this particular attempt, illustrated by Robert Lewis, falls down on addressing the audience appropriately.

More on that in a moment. What Andrew and Jennifer Granville attempt to do here is put across a fairly obscure bit of mathematics - the relationship between the distribution of the primes and the cycles of permutations - using a very abstracted story in the form of a murder mystery where each victim represents one of the mathematical examples. The authors also claim in their epilogue that their aims include drawing attention to how research is done, the role of women in mathematics today and the 'influence and conflict of deep and rigid abstraction' (no, I don't either).

What we get is a strange murder mystery story where a maths professor is called in to help a detective, making use of two of the professor's students. They are trying to link two similar cases with very different victims. All the characters are named after famous mathematicians and supposedly explain the mathematical ideas they put forward, but this is not done in a way that makes the maths particularly accessible, hindered as it is by the need to compress all the text into speech bubbles and to waste 95 per cent of the page on imagery.

Because the storyline is so abstracted from the mathematics, the images themselves contribute very little. It doesn't help that they vary hugely in quality - some are well drawn, others clearly hurriedly sketched, so that, for example, on page 15 Professor Gauss appears to have six foot long arms. The storyline itself is disjointed, jumping backwards and forwards in time and involving the main detective in a journey to Europe that seems primarily designed to give him something to do while the mathematicians get on with chipping away at the mathematics (and doing autopsies, because, of course, that's what mathematicians do).

If this really is supposed, as the authors say, to give insight into 'the role of student and adviser' it seems that one lesson we need to draw is that professors choose their research assistants by asking trivial questions of a class and then pretty much picking someone arbitrarily.

But I inevitably come back to the audience. Prime Suspects is far too abstruse to appeal to the general graphic novel reader, while the fan of popular maths titles will find the lack of opportunity to explain, explore and appreciate context extremely frustrating; meanwhile the mathematical message proves incredibly hard to follow. The illustrations are crammed with mathematical in-jokes, which makes me wonder if the authors' true audience was other mathematicians - not to inform, but to entertain. It's an interesting, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempt at the communication of maths and the world of academia to a wider audience.

Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The Hidden Half - Michael Blastland *****

Michael Blastland is co-author of one of my favourite titles on the use and misuse of numbers, The Tiger that Isn't - so I was excited to see this book and wasn't disappointed.

Blastland opens with the story of a parthenogenic crustacean that seems to demonstrate that, despite having near-identical nature and nurture, a collection of the animals vary hugely in size, length of life and practically every other measure. This is used to introduce us to the idea that our science deals effectively with the easy bit, the 'half' that is accessible, but that in many circumstances there is a hidden half that comprises a whole range of very small factors which collectively can have a huge impact, but which are pretty much impossible to predict or account for. (I put 'half' in inverted commas as it might be fairer to say 'part' - there's no suggestion that this is exactly 50:50.)

We go on to discover this hidden half turning up in all kinds of applications of …

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 

An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

Bloom - Ruth Kassinger ***

There is much fascinating material in this chunky book by Ruth Kassinger. It may be my total ignorance of biology and everyone else knows these things, but I learnt so much - for example that seaweed is algae and not a plant, about algae's role in the development of land plants, about the algae in lichen and its contribution to coral reefs.

The book is divided into four broad sections: on the origins and development of algae, on algae (and particularly seaweed) as food, on making use of algae, for example, for biofuel, and on algae and climate change, particularly the bleaching of coral and algal blooms. This is all done in a very approachable writing style, mixing descriptive material that is never over-technical with narrative often featuring visits to different locations and to talk to a range of experts from those who study to algae to those who cook them.

There are two problems though. Firstly, the book is too long at 380 pages. Each section could do with a trim, but this wa…