Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Poincaré Conjecture : In Search of the Shape of the Universe by Donal O'Shea

The universe is finite but doesn't have walls, apparently, which means that it must be bent or curved in some ingenious, twisty way. But how? In 1904 the French mathematician Henri Poincaré attempted to describe its shape. His conjecture ("Is it possible that the fundamental group of a manifold could be the identity, but that the manifold might not be homeomorphic to the three-dimensional sphere?") remained unproven for more than 100 years, although Alfred North Whitehead briefly thought he'd cracked it. O'Shea has his work cut out providing an idiot's guide to differential geometry and algebraic topology, but it is the human stories that stand out: in particular the lives of the mathematicians Johann Carl Gauss, the enigmatic and brilliant Bernhard Riemann and his intellectual heir Poincaré himself. In 2006 it was confirmed that the publicity-shy Grigory Perelman, a Russian Jew, had finally proved Poincaré's conjecture. Huzzah! But hold on. "The question of the shape of the universe," concludes O'Shea, "is still very much open."

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes Edited by John Gross

This book starts with Chaucer assaulting a friar in Fleet Street and ends with JK Rowling winning a high court injunction. The latter is less an anecdote (defined by Dr Johnson as "something yet unpublished; secret history") than an item from the Telegraph, which only highlights John Gross's dilemma. To update the old-fashioned literary anecdote he has had to broaden his criteria to include "anecdotal material". Often the modern authors (McEwan, Amis, Winterson) have penned the anecdote themselves, presumably because libel laws prevented anything meatier. There's still much to enjoy, however. After telling us about Ezra Pound seeking attention by eating tulips, for instance, Gross informs us that William Empson once ate a tulip, petal by petal, then threw up. We also encounter Pope falling asleep in front of royalty, Mr and Mrs Blake in the nude, Thomas Hardy showing EM Forster his pets' graves, and Dylan Thomas's wife shoving a drunken elbow in her ice cream at a dinner party, then turning to TS Eliot and saying, "Lick it off".

Sunday, November 9, 2008

A Little History of the World by EH Gombrich

The German version of this marvellous history for children was written in a mere six weeks in 1935 by an unknown 26-year-old art history graduate who later became known as the distinguished art historian EH Gombrich. He was still working on an English version when he died aged 92. Like all the best teachers, Gombrich simplifies but never patronises, adding a good measure of humour and charm. The book's civilising and humanising mission is never in doubt as history unfolds up to the "tolerance, reason and humanity" of the Enlightenment. Yet in a final chapter, recalling the rise of Hitler, an older and wiser Gombrich concedes that his optimism was misplaced and that in the last century humanity took "a painful step backwards", betraying the ideals of the Enlightenment. "Schoolchildren are often intolerant," he explains. "Unfortunately grown-ups don't behave any better." Gombrich's view of history as an adventure will appeal to all ages, but perhaps this book's best recommendation is that it was banned by the Nazis for being "too pacifist".

The Oxford Companion to Black British History

Don't be put off by the textbook format. This is really a collection of punchy, argumentative and thought-provoking essays that would make a perfect bedside book. The entry on British sport, for instance, detects an "animalising trope", which attributes a black athlete's success to natural ability (with sinister "echoes of the race-IQ debate") rather than skill or practice. (It also examines the racist reaction of British football fans to black players in the early 1980s.) The entry on multiculturalism deftly debates the pros and cons, while an entry on Roman Britain reminds us that black British history didn't begin with the arrival of the Empire Windrush. After all, African soldiers defended Hadrian's Wall in the second century AD. Music and the arts are well represented, and literature's big names are neatly skewered, from Jane Austen's imperialist morality to TS Eliot's "King Bolo and his big black Qween". Why is African-American history so much better documented than black British history, the editors wonder. This magnificent volume goes some way to redressing the balance.