|About the Book|
I’ve done what I never do – before starting this review I’ve read some of the other reviews on this site. I’m quite surprised at the negative reviews this book has received. Someone has even complained that this is quite an ‘anti-Christian’ book. I guess this is because the author was clearly less than impressed with the ‘Dark Ages’ which he introduces by discussing Hypatia. So, yes, I can understand why that might annoy a Christian. But this would be like a Marxist complaining when people mention Czechoslovakia in 1968 or Stalin’s purges. Complaining that people point at the bones in the cupboard hardly makes those bones disappear.Another says that it is an odd book because it is a book on geometry and yet it has virtually no diagrams. Again, I can see why this would seem odd, but I thought the writing was so clear and so engaging that the somewhat surprising lack of diagrams hardly seemed to matter.Others complained about the humour – and yes, I can also understand this. But compared to the ‘humour’ I’ve read in other pop-science books, this guy is Douglas Adams. I mean, The God Particle If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question? was considered a funny book according to the blurb… God, save us…I’m going to tell you why I really liked this book.The thing that I liked most about it was that it started by saying that many people really have negative memories of high school geometry and the author thinks that this is a real pity. His point in writing the book is to explain why geometry is interesting and what is its place in science and mathematics. This is why the criticism about the lack of diagrams somewhat misses the point – this book isn’t really seeking to teach geometry, but to inspire readers to go back and learn more about geometry themselves.Basically, this is not only a history of geometry, but also a history of our understanding of space itself. It starts in the ancient world with Egyptians and Babylonians marking out the ground, building pyramids and calculating approximations for Pi. It ends with a discussion of string theory and the possible multi-dimensional space that is predicted in that. He takes us on this grand tour in a light-hearted and easy to follow narrative. You literally do not need to even remember any of your high school geometry to enjoy this book. It fits into that class of books, like The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace A History of Space from Dante to the Internet or Fermats Enigma The Epic Quest to Solve the Worlds Greatest Mathematical Problem that take quite difficult scientific and mathematical ideas and presents them in a way a general audience will understand.This also did something else I love – it gave lots of background to the lives of many of the scientists and mathematicians mentioned. I thought this was a wonderful introduction to the history of the development of geometry and one that provided simple to understand summaries of the main ‘questions’ in the development of geometry. Here is a guy who understands that science progresses with questions, rather than answers. For instance, the discussion of the question of whether there is a law of parallel lines and if so is it possible to state this law in a way that is not circular – was simply phrased and the many ‘attempts’ to solve this problem given in the history of the subject was done with both humour and intelligence.This book is worthwhile just for the information on the lives of Gauss and Riemann. Parts of this book, particularly the chapter on Gauss’ life, would almost make you weep. There is a beautiful and beautifully simple explanation of non-Euclidian geometry and why these ‘spaces’ became necessary – and also how Einstein used these ideas in his General Theory of Relativity.Naturally, the section on string theory is the hardest part of the book – I had hoped to be able to report that the author’s exceptional skills at presenting complex ideas in beautifully simple prose would extend to this most complex of ideas, but that was far too much to hope for.This was still a wonderful introduction to geometry and one that does more than make you think about triangles and such things – but that really helps non-specialists (and even those with virtually no knowledge of the subject at all) get an idea of just why having a means of describe space is so important not just in mathematics and science, but in philosophy as well.This book also has some lovely throwaway lines on science that I really enjoyed and which can’t be said too often. For example, at one point he says that Occam’s Razor (the idea that a theory should try to use as few ‘bits’ as it can get away with to explain what it is trying to explain) is referred to as science’s chief aesthetic principle – isn’t that lovely? The other thing I liked was at the end when he asked (in reference to String Theory) if science was about pointing a searchlight at the world to discover its ‘truths’ or if it was about building a tower with as many blocks as possible to see if it will stand or fall. The conclusion he seems to draw is that it is a bit of both.So, will you come away from this book being able to solve complex geometrical problems? Well, no. Will you come away from this book amused and with a much better understanding of the role played by geometry in the history and development of science? Absolutely. If you are after the first you might want to find another book, otherwise, this really is worth a read.