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Review - Einstein's Heroes: Imagining the world through the language of mathematics - Robyn Arianrhod 

 

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Modern bookselling wisdom has it that a book's subtitle should cram in all the obvious keywords so a search on Amazon or Google will pull it up - but a small prize to the publisher (or author) here for bucking the trend, because the main name in this book just isn't mentioned at all (though if you know your Einstein you'll be able to guess) - it's James Clark Maxwell.

Apparently Einstein had pictures of three people on his wall - Maxwell, Faraday and Newton, and it is these heroes that are at the centre of the book. Maxwell is the key figure, because of his fundamental importance in shifting mathematics from a prop to physical analogies to an explanation of physical phenomena in its own right, but the other two feature heavily too as the trio who laid the foundations for Einstein's breakthroughs.

Although there's a lot of biographical detail, particularly on Maxwell, there's not quite enough detail to make it a true popular science biography. Robyn Arianrhod misses, for example, the rather entertaining fact that Maxwell's attempt at colour photography only worked by accident because the plate wasn't sensitive to red, but happened to be sensitive to infra-red instead, which was emitted from the right parts of the tartan he photographed, so gave the impression of working. What she does instead is to bring in altogether more maths than most popular science authors would dare - and on the whole does this so painlessly that it isn't problem.

At times this means the book reads rather like a very good textbook rather than popular science, particularly when she is explaining the mathematical side of Newton's theory of gravity (and the slight lack of page turning drive that results is the main reason it doesn't get five stars). If you are the kind of reader who gets nervous at the sight of equations, I just advise you to grit your teeth and get past it - much of the rest of the book is less frightening, and well worth the effort. Another section that is essential to demonstrating Maxwell's fundamental importance, but might strike terror is where she describes Maxwell's work with the crossbreed of calculus and vectors that proved essential to describing electromagnetism. I so wish I had read this book back when I was learning this stuff at university, when I picked up how to do it, but never got a gut feel for what made grad, div (or divergence as Arianrhod gives it its full title) and curl tick. Again, bite the bullet - it's necessary, trust me.

I won't go as far as the Sydney Morning Herald, which said "the book reads like a good novel, so much so that the closing lines [...] moved me to tears." This is in part because the reviewer seems to have missed the point that those closing lines are a quote from a T-shirt. It's a very clever T-shirt, but I refuse to be moved to tears by casual wear. I'm also extremely wary of anything that says a popular science book reads like a good novel. It shouldn't. Half the point of a good novel is to hide things, to leave them to your own interpretation, to have enough layers that it takes several re-reads to get all the meaning. A good popular science book puts its message across well first time - so luckily, Arianrhod's book doesn't read like a good novel at all, it reads like a good popular science book, and that's a much harder trick to pull off. Recommended.

UK version is hardback, and cheaper than the US version, which is paperback.     

Reviewed by Brian Clegg      

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Last update 05 June 2007