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A Song for Molly - Jeremy Bernstein ***

This is quite probably the strangest popular science/maths book I have ever read. There have been a good few attempts to combine science writing with fiction, as A Song for Molly does. It's a great idea, but from the results I have seen so far, extremely difficult to do well. What Jeremy Bernstein does is different from anything I've seen before, and in some aspects works very well.

Let's start with what I love about this book. Every now and then I have lunch with the varied collection of individuals who once made up the Lancaster University Christmas University Challenge team. We're a very different bunch, and the group includes brilliant raconteurs. The lunches are a delight, in part because of the way the conversation ranges far and wide. There is a similar joy in Bernstein's range of interests as his book skips from the ideas of Wittgenstein to the attempts to decipher Linear A/B, from Cantor's ideas on infinity to game theory. It really feels like sitting as an observer on a sparkling conversation that bounces from topic to topic.

Other aspects left me less enthused. The fictional framework feels forced. The theme of dogs running through it (Molly is a dog) didn't really work for me (and I'm a dog lover), while the central character's views on women seem distinctly old-fashioned. The character also resorts regularly to an analyst, which felt too much like the use of an analyst in the TV series Suits, while worst of all was the regular description of the central character's dreams. If there is one thing more boring than being told about someone else's dream, it's being told about a fictional character's dream. And though the information is fascinating, far too much of it is put across by the main character in full-on mansplaining mode to a female character - it's amazing she sticks with him.

There were also rather more typos than I hope for in a professionally produced book, most painfully the statement 'the Minotaur - the bull-headed monster which had been kept in a labyrinth at Knossos by King Minotor.' For that matter, the cover makes it look like a self-published book with a design done by a friend.

It's impossible to tell how anyone will react to reading this book. I'm glad I did, but it certainly won't be for everyone. I'd recommend dipping your toe in - if you are enjoying it after the first chapter, read on.


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Review by Brian Clegg


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