Einstein's Heroes: Imagining the World through the Language of Mathematics
by Robyn Arianrhod
UQP, 331 pp
The Sydney Morning Herald
Reviewer Jane Gleeson-White
10 November 2003
"If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it." This remark by Albert Einstein perfectly captures the essence of a revolution in physics created by the central character of Einstein's Heroes.
In 1846, the Edinburgh Royal Society published a Scottish schoolboy's first original mathematical investigation. At the time, the shy, awkward boy was only 15 and still dressed in clothes designed and made by his father.
The boy was James Clerk Maxwell , who went on to use mathematics to unlock the secrets of electromagnetism and reveal the fundamental nature of light. But, more importantly, from the mathematical language of his equations themselves, Maxwell predicted the existence of something undreamt of at the time - the radio wave. For the first time, mathematics alone had been used to reveal a physical phenomenon.
Although Maxwell's pioneering use of mathematics in physics is now accepted practice, to build a theory of physics from the language of mathematics (rather than from direct observation of the physical world) seemed so preposterous at the time that his friend and mentor, the renowned mathematical physicist Sir William Thomson, dismissed Maxwell's theory as mysticism.
But a young scientist born the year of Maxwell's death, Einstein, was so inspired by Maxwell's mathematics - which he'd had to teach himself because his teachers didn't include it in their curriculums - that he put a photograph of Maxwell on his study wall, alongside pictures of Michael Faraday and Isaac Newton. These three men are Einstein's Heroes.
In her brilliant new book, Dr Robyn Arianrhod tells the story of the three scientists whose pioneering work paved the way to 20th-century physics. Maxwell's story provides the central thread, the stories of Faraday and Newton its subplots. But, like several recent books on science written for a general readership, Einstein's Heroes is many things biography, history, physics, mathematics. Arianrhod presents science as the physicist, mathematician and author. Margaret Wertheim argues it should be presented: "not as an isolated activity taking place away from the rest of society, but as a profoundly human and culturally contingent pursuit".
The depth and breadth of Arianrhod's reach is impressive. She moves easily from Maxwell's life to discuss ancient Greek, Indian, Islamic and Chinese mathematics, as well as the work of modern scientists such as Newton, Faraday, Einstein and others. Her lucid prose is as comfortable with the details of Maxwell's personal life as it is with the intricacies of his physics. But, as its subtitle "Imagining the World through the Language of Mathematics" suggests, Einstein's Heroes is ultimately a book about mathematics, a language Arianrhod sees as "a celebration of the human spirit". In Maxwell's work, she has found the perfect medium for exploring its beauty.
Apparently, Einstein's Heroes had been growing in Arianrhod's mind "almost from the time I first fell in love with the amazing and elegant language of mathematics". It seems this sense of "falling in love" has worked like alchemy in her book, infusing it with a spirit that makes it utterly irresistible to read. Arianrhod brings to her subject so much care, intelligence, attentiveness, enthusiasm and simmering excitement that the book reads like a good novel, so much so that the closing lines of the last chapter (four equations and seven words) moved me to tears. So beautifully does Arianrhod write, so inexorably does she move towards this moment. Arianrhod says Maxwell "always tried to enlighten rather than dazzle his readers". I could think of no better praise for Arianrhod's own work. Einstein's Heroes is a remarkable, accessible, inspiring new book and it deserves to be widely read.
Jane Gleeson-White is a writer, editor and mathematician.
This story at: http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/11/09/1068329423959.html
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