Monthly Archives: January 2014

Book Review: The History of Mathematics: A Very Short Introduction by Jacqueline Stedall

Having read a few of the science-based Very Short Introductions (VSIs), I have become more inclined to read those on subjects which I know little or nothing about, or where my knowledge is somewhat scatty. This volume falls squarely in the last of these. Having studied maths at university and read quite a few books about maths (for some reviews see here, here, here and here), I have picked up snippets here and there, but have never before read anything like a formal history.

Stedall opens with something of a case study: that of Fermat’s last theorem. To anyone who has a GCSE in maths, this is an understandable problem, even if the solution is still only understood by a handful of “elite” mathematicians in the world. It is through this problem that the author looks at various approaches one might take to mathematical history. At this point the unwary reader might start to get a little confused.

The reason for that is that Stedall takes her history seriously. Though the book is interspersed with the stories of some of the problems that have puzzled men and women for millennia, their friendships and rivalries, a history which is limited to dates and discoveries is one that would be superficial and misleading, as Stedall points out. An additional problem is highlighted, in that some of our sources are extremely sparse, with very little known about the likes of Pythagoras or Diophantus and even less about the development of the science outside Europe.

This begs the question: what is mathematics? It might sound like a stupid question, until you actually think about it. Much of what I did as part of my masters degree might well have been considered theoretical physics; and that was mostly studying scientific developments from the 18th up the 20th century. Most of this has been developed in western Europe. So what about the rest of history and the rest of the world? To answer that Stedall looks at a wider scope than many readers will be familiar with. Of particular note is the look at Arabic science, a topic I hope to follow up later this year with Jim Al-Khalili’s book, Pathfinders.

The next two chapters look at the spread of mathematical ideas. The first, from the perspective of the mathematician to the mathematician, the second, from the perspective of teacher to student. I must confess, I’d not really considered the dissemination of mathematical ideas from an historical perspective. The insight we get into an English Victorian education is something I probably ought to have known, but which was nonetheless a revelation to me. Less surprising, though sadly so, was the discussion on women’s mathematical education, which is a sad indictment on our education system until far too recently.

It’s only after all this that the reader who, like me, expected a more conventional story of some individual’s lives, get what they were expecting. Piecemeal, we have already had some insight but here we fill in some of the more obvious gaps, such as the lives of Euler and Lagrange. Though these are dealt with in a brief manner, that is kind of the point of this series of books.

Only towards the end do we actually see any maths. For some readers, this may come as a relief, for others, it may leave us wondering how good a history of ideas might be without the explicit statement of some of those ideas.

Stedall’s writing is perfect for the job. She is engaging, insightful and thought-provoking. As ever, we are provided with a great list for potential follow-up reading. I can’t say that I now have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of maths, but I have been able to glimpse some extra insights. Yet I don’t feel rushed to follow these up, but follow them up I may well do, but all in good time.

On leaving churches and remaining united

This post has been heavily edited and rewritten over the last week (not least the title, which I’m still not sure is the best it could be). There is much that has been left out which was on my heart but which I’m not convinced was wise for publication just yet. I hope that what remains is coherent and kind.

A little over a week ago, a friend posted a link on Facebook to the blog of an American pastor entitled 5 Really Bad Reasons To Leave Your Church. The post prompted a lot of interesting responses, some on Facebook, some on the blog itself. I wrote a first draft of a response in the weekend following, but couldn’t quite it right, whether that be in tone, in detail or in length. I found myself going off on all sorts of tangents. The best response was one of the first, where Hannah Mudge (@boudledige) engaged directly with the points raised in the article and looked at the analogy of escaping from an abusive relationship.

I queried the author about whether or not he thought there were any good reasons for leaving. I could not help but think of my own reasons and those given by a friend from the opposite end of the ecclesiastical spectrum from myself, The Artsy Honker. Where I got bogged down in my first draft was trying to recapitulate those, rephrasing my own past reasons in terms of Aaron’s post.

After a week of reflection, I think the lingering idea that has stuck has been that of emotional engagement. It takes a lot of courage to speak up about reasons for either leaving or considering leaving. If we view church as a family, then we can never “truly” leave, but we can move out of home and move in with others. So when I talk about leaving a church it’s never about giving up one’s faith. I am firmly of the idea that there are times and circumstances when it is right for someone to move on. At that point, one has a choice about how to go about it. One could just slip out of the door one Sunday morning and never come back or one can talk through with a pastor/minister/vicar (however you want to phrase it) the reasons why. Whether that means a face to face conversation or a written communication, that is up the individual and whatever is most helpful.

In any such conversation one has to bear in mind the well-being of the other party. I would hate to leave a church in any kind of a bad mood. If there is any critique to be given then this should be done graciously, with the aim of ultimately building up one another, or encouraging them. Likewise, if a church leader disagrees with such reasons, this should not be done in a condemnatory way. I think this was my issue with Aaron’s post, as it came across (bearing in mind, he’s American, so it may it not have translated well across the Atlantic) as unloving, judgmental and indicative of a pastor’s hurt pride.

Nomatter how good our intentions are, one thing we have to bear in mind is that we are fallible and get things wrong. If I try to be sensitive to someone else’s feelings as I move away then I may not get it right; I might say a word out of place or fail to mention something I should have done. The unity of the christian Church (as a whole) is vitally important. Yet we have different local gatherings for a wide variety of different reasons, whether they be because one favours a particular tradition or a hierarchical structure, while another is more liberal about such things.

Since moving to London last summer, the church I have settled at doesn’t meet on the 4th Sunday morning of the month, for reasons to do with the building we hire. What that allows me is the opportunity to be more ecumenical and visit another church in the local area, sharing fellowing one month with the united reformed church, another month with the methodists and just yesterday I went to an anglican church. I would love it if people from other churches dropped into us once in a while so we express a common identity in Christ, rather than living in parallel worlds which inhabit the same neighbourhoods, as can often happen. 


A few weeks ago, a friend of mine referred to me as a “protestant”. I’ve been mulling this over since then. It’s not a term I’m particularly keen on. It stemmed from a comment about christianity, and this chap, having grown up in Northern Ireland, had a dichotomy in his head: you are either catholic or protestant.

I’m certainly not a catholic. But I don’t really see myself as a protestant either. The term implies an ongoing protest. But the seeds of that protest are no longer seeds; it’s grown up, flowered and produced some very good fruit.

Although the catholic church took a backward step recently with the reintroduction of indulgences, on the whole the Council of Trent and Vatican II have resulted in a modern catholic church which is different (I hesitate to use the term ‘reformed’ – for obvious reasons) from that which Calvin disagreed with and which Luther wrote his 95 theses about.

The label was useful for a time, but I’m no longer sure it is needed. The negative connotations it brings, accrued due to un-Christlike behaviour on both sides of the dispute, are more of a hindrance than anything else. A dispute that may rumble on in some corners but for the most part is now history.

This is just an example. There are many other terms, in different walks of life, where choosing to label ourselves (either individually or as a community) may serve a useful purpose for a time. But what happens when that time passes?

I still listen to CDs. At one time, I put sticky labels on some as I knew they would be muddled up with other people’s. Afterwards, I tried to remove the labels. Bits of the paper front stayed stuck and the glue left a sticky residue. It makes me think about whether or not we really have the long term in mind when we apply labels to ourselves (or even, against their wishes, to others).

Last night, I was at a lecture given by Tom Wright at King’s College London, about his new (and very big) book on Paul. At the time of writing this, I’m at about page 470 – a little over a quarter of the way through. In the talk, and something evidenced in the first 6 chapters, is Paul’s emphasis on unified identity in the Messiah (in Christ). It’s a label I’m happy with, but more labels than that may serve to divide us, even if their original purpose was to unify a sub-group.

  • Are there any labels you have used that you now regret?
  • Are there labels you use to describe yourself and others that you think are helpful in the long term?

n.b. this was written off the cuff over lunchtime. Please forgive me for any typos.

Book Review: The Trumpet Major by Thomas Hardy

If you know me well and follow this blog (which narrows it down to about 4 people) you may have noted that I haven’t read that much Thomas Hardy lately. Aside from having other reading to do, I am fairly close to the end of the Hardy canon. Having been hooked by Jude the Obscure quite a few years ago, before this blog started, I have worked my way through his major works and am now going through some of lesser known novels. After this, the only ones I will have left to go are:

  • Two on a Tower
  • The Hand of Ethelberta
  • A Laodicean

After which, I expect to start again with those haven’t been reviewed on this blog. But enough of the future plans, what about this book?

This was the first of the books I received for Christmas. Starting a Hardy novel often takes a little time to tune in, as the cadences of the speech and some archaic words, as well the regional accents spelled phonetically, can confuse the modern reader who is more used to plain English. In this respect, the book’s opening reminded me of a slightly less shambolic start to that which greets us in Under the Greenwood Tree.

Our two main characters which come into sight are the Trumpet-Major himself and Anne, who is quite fond of the arrival of an army regiment in Overcombe in the Wessex downs. Unlike most of Hardy’s novels, set in the latter part of the 19th century, this is set in the early years of that century, particularly against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars. Indeed, the reason the regiment take up their post on the south coast is because there is a belief (or is it fear?) that Buonaparte, as he is referred to, may be about to launch an invasion.

There is something of a friendship developed between the man of the army and woman of the village, but their social status is not the primary driver between them. Other suitors are nearby, not least the character of Festus Derriman. To him is afforded the very worst of characteristics. He thinks of himself as a gentleman, but is a misogynist of the ugliest character, with lines such as “Haw, haw; why, I thought your “go away” meant “come on” as it does with so many of the women I meet.” Charming.

The other contender for Anne’s affection is a character called Bob. Here, Hardy’s storytelling skills fall down a little, as it is not until second half of the book that we work out (though it is not a startling revelation, as though it were a plot point) that Bob is in fact the brother of trumpet major, who is sometimes referred to as John, sometimes as Jack. This creates some confusion when a character is then referred to simply by their surname, as the reader cannot immediately tell if it is Bob or John who is being referenced.

As with some of Hardy’s best work, somebody dies and somebody falls in love, though I shan’t disclose here the final outcome. The level of drama ramps up, making the second half of the book much better than the first, not least because some of the background characters drop out of the picture, leaving us with fewer characters to focus on, though I wasn’t overly impressed with the depth of characterisation. The climax of the book was marvelously entertaining and I still wasn’t sure what the final outcome would be right up until the final few pages.

It’s a wonderfully entertaining book that kept me distracted for little over a week, but I can see why it’s not considered part of Hardy’s “core” canon.

The requirement of the law (A Personal Catechism #4)

Link to Introduction
Link to most recent post

Q: What does the law of God require of us?

A: Christ teaches us that briefly, Matt 22:37-40, “Thou shalt love the Lord they God with all thy heart, with all thy soul and with all thy mind and with all thy strength. This is the first and the great commandment; and the second is like unto it, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”


There’s really very little that I can say about this, other than “I agree” in a variety of different ways. Having done quite a bit of reading on the ‘new perspective’, I have changed my view somewhat on the nature of the law, which I sketched in part 3. But the law as it stands is best summarised as stated above.

Love is a tricky word in the English language, as it doesn’t always convey quite the senses that can be carried by the words in Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek. In the quote above, the Greek word is Agapeo. The concordance I have describes it as “in the N[ew] T[estament] usually the active love of God for his Son and his people, and the active love his people are to have for God, each other and even enemies.” The idea seems to be that it is a very practical action; love is not merely some sort of fuzzy feeling. It’s not affection or fondness. Though that doesn’t mean it is devoid of emotion (see below).

What are we to love God with? The list nature as it appears strikes me as a piece of rhetoric which seems to say “everything”, only in a more poetic way. If we can provide love, hands-on, with all that we have, then we are getting somewhere close to what was intended. Yet the list of ways does prompt another thought: that people who have different personalities love in different ways.

For example, I am not a particularly emotional sort of person. Even though I tend to go to fairly charismatic churches, which are generally known for a higher than average level of emotional engagement, I remain much more of a thinker than anything else. So one might well say I love with my mind more than anything else. Tendencies to love in one way or another may attract people to certain kinds of churches. So those who have a more emotional reaction may lean towards the charismatic churches. In my experience, Anglicans tend to be better than most at loving with all their strength. i.e. very practically, as are the Salvation Army. In a similar vein, of the Quakers I have come across, they are always very thoughtful and are amongst the deepest thinkers I know; they embody very well the idea of loving God with all your mind. I try to learn from each of these not only to embody such love in myself but to encourage those in the church around me (both a local community and the digital community) to do likewise.

The other thing I might point out is the phrase “hang on”. The Greek word which appears in Matthew is kremannymi, a word which doesn’t come up very often in the new testament. When it does, it appears to have the same connotations as we have in our modern English. For example, in Acts 28:4, it describes a snake hanging off Paul’s hand after it bit him in Malta. What it does not seem to say is that “These two commandments encapsulate the law and the prophets.” So these are the foundation of a Judeo-christian ethic. How we live in this world is a complicated matter, living in different climates, cultures, political and economic systems, but if you peel back any individual or any community behaviour within that, we can ask, does it meet these two criteria?

Yet in this personal catechism, recall that I haven’t really defined God. I’m not convinced that trying to fit God into a neat little pigeonhole so it can be examined really works. So for now the commandment stands as an instruction to love something we don’t quite know or understand. Yet if we love our neighbours as ourselves, is that really so very different? If our neighbours ultimately encapsulate all those who live around us, then I have several million neighbours within a 10 mile radius. Can I possibly understand each of them individually or even as a collective? Of course, the two cases aren’t identical. I hope you get the general gist of the point.

I must admit that I am troubled at times by the phrase “as thyself”. What if someone has lost any and all self-respect, having replaced it with self-loathing? There is an implicit assumption that people will want to live to act in their own self-interests, therefore it is good and proper to act in the interests of others. If the first part is true, then there may be a case for arguing capitalism; it would certainly be indicative of an insight into an element of human nature that spans cultures and time. Or maybe it was an assumption that is commonly true but not universally. If so, what if a person hates themself tries to love others as they love themselves? Does it not then become a command to hate others? I know this is thinking at the extreme edge of some circumstances, but I think christianity should stretch far enough to be able to encapsulate such extremes. To say it another way, if we are to reflect God to the world, then if our love does not extend to its most extreme ends, does that mean that those who inhabit those spaces are beyond God’s love? To this, I would answer ‘no’, though that is a kind of love which is easier said than done. To fully grasp what this kind of love is, is to look up a great mountain. You might climb for several hours, seemingly nearing the top, only to come over a ridge and see before you an even greater peak in an even more inhospitable climate.

But who ever said love was easy?

Alternative answer

It seems hard to present, an alternative answer, especially, as the original is a quote. But if you will forgive me for paraphrasing to something that is not found in scripture:

“Love God with everything that you have and everything that you are. If you have any self-respect, then love others as you would want to be loved. To be self-emptying in love is hard, but if a community is made of those who are so loving, then you will continually fill one another up to overflowing. This is the cornerstone of our communal ethic and a significant part of our identity.”


Creative Commons: Horia Andrei Varlan

Creative Commons: Horia Andrei Varlan

In this blog post, I wanted to look in a bit more detail at a quote I posted on Twitter on Saturday the 4th. The quote was as follows:

“Interpreting the bible is very interesting, but we don’t really know what it means.”

This prompted a response from an old friend I know from university, asking me what I thought of it. I replied as follows:

“Kind of agree. I aim to declare with boldness that which I acknowledge I might be wrong about.”

This prompted a response from a Methodist follower of mine to say

“Then we are lost”

I stated at the time that I would then aim to put a little more nuance on this in a blog post. So this should hopefully add a little more flesh to the matter, though it is by no means my final word on the topic.

First, a little on the context. This came up at a monthly bible school I have recently started attending at the church I’ve settled at after having moved house last year. The overall discussion was about the Magi, with a significant portion devoted to whether or not they were Zoroastrians. The point at this stage in the discussion had been about Jewish eschatology and how a good many intelligent people had ideas about how and when the Messiah would come, but what actually happened, even though it fitted up with the Old Testament prophecies, still came rather unexpectedly. Therefore, though we have a wealth of ideas about christian eschatology, ideas of heaven, hell, resurrection and annihilation, it might well turn that we have all got a little bit right most mostly wrong, and that what we expect will be radically confounded. It was at this point that the original quote came in.

Quoting things on Twitter is fraught with danger, as the brevity of that medium necessarily entails curtailed explanations. I posted the quote almost at a whim (something I do far more often there than on this blog), but it highlighted a strand of thinking that often runs through my head; that being what I expressed briefly in my follow-up. To expand upon it, I would draw a dichotomy between humility and hubris. Humility says, “I might be wrong.” Hubris says, “I am right.” Of course, just about any human who holds an opinion does so because they think they are right. But it is one thing to think you are right and another to state categorically that you are right.

So I hold many opinions on a variety of topic – some of which get written about here, some of which it may be wiser to refrain from – and in each of these I think I’m correct. But to think that I am so well-informed, intelligent and wise to think that I understand all things perfectly would be absurd. I have been wrong about a great many things before and I think it is probable that there are views I hold now which will turn out to be wrong. Of course, I don’t at this time know which ones they are.

So when I use the word “know” I mean an epistemological certainty. Those things that I “know” are really very few. For all other things, one might consider some sort of scale of doubt. I might be pretty sure about some things. For example, I would have no doubt that the main colour of the laptop on which I am writing this is red. That is something I am happy to say I know. I am pretty sure of the contents of my fridge at the moment. I last looked in it a few hours ago and could quite happily run off a list of what’s there; yet I might make a mistake. I might have miscounted the tubs of yoghurt, for instance, or forgotten to put the sweet chilli sauce back in the fridge after using it for tonight’s dinner.

So when it comes to something like christianity, I am constantly revising my views in light of new evidence or a new perspective. Because I believe the great commission, I am an evangelical. It is right for the church (as a whole) to educate people about the gospel. And we do not do it with a spirit of timidity, but that doesn’t mean it is to be done with a kind of bolshie arrogance. To try to sell christianity as something that ‘has all the answers’ is to not only mislead others, but is a lie to oneself. I can say ‘this is what I believe and this is why’ and even state ‘I believe, to the best of my understanding, that this is true’ but I cannot go so far as to state my beliefs are unequivocally perfect and complete. And if they are not, then I must, out of honesty, confess that I might be wrong.

2013 in books

Well, the year has now ended, and I’ve finished my reviews. So below is the full list of all the books I finished last year, with links to each review.

As ever, some books were hard to classify in terms of my normal 4 categories. For example, one might wonder why Theology of Money is in “Other” and not “Christianity”. The reason for putting it there is that there was very little theology in the book, which was more of a treatise on economics.

After last year’s list, it was commented that I was lacking some Jules Verne, which is why there are two novels of his in my fiction reading. I also accepted a challenge from an atheist friend of mine to read something to challenge my beliefs, which resulted in me picking up Ben Whitney’s book, though as the friend mentioned Hume in passing I also read some of the latter’s work.

The start of the year saw me finishing some preliminary reading on the New Perspective on Paul in preparation for the publication of N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God. At the time of posting this, I am a little over a quarter of the way through that monumental work.

My science reading has been a little low in terms of the number of books read, though The Emperor’s New Mind and The Age of Wonder were both very long works, and both excellent in their own way.

The fiction reading has been rather mixed. There were some notable disappointments, with one superb work thrown into the mix too.

Other reading has seen a nice mix of history, economics and philosophy. Here lies the work of Thucydides, which was by far the longest and toughest book to get through.

Christianity (14)

The Prodigal God – Tim Keller
Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision – Tom Wright
The Knowledge of the Holy – A.W.Tozer
Justification: Five views – Various
Erasing Hell – Francis Chan & Preston Sprinkle
Hannah’s Child – Stanley Hauerwas
Walking Without God – Ben Whitney
Jesus – Marcus Borg
Faith in the Public Square – Rowan Williams
Dogmatics in Outline – Karl Barth
A Broad Place – Jurgen Moltmann
Confessions – Augustine
Post Charismatic – Rob McAlpine
Love Wins – Rob Bell

Science (9)

The Emperor’s New Mind – Roger Penrose
The Age of Wonder –Richard Holmes
Thinking in Numbers – Daniel Tammet
Longitude – Dava Sobel
Mathematics: A Very Short Introduction – Timothy Gowers
Robotics: A Very Short Introduction – Alan Winfield
The Extended Phenotype – Richard Dawkins
The Scientific Revolution: A Very Short Introduction – Lawrence Principe
Cosmology: A Very Short Introduction – Peter Coles

Fiction (9)

A Pair of Blue Eyes – Thomas Hardy
The Book of Dave – Will Self
Jamaica Inn – Daphne du Maurier
The Outsider – Albert Camus
From the Earth to the Moon – Jules Verne
Around the Moon – Jules Verne
The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories – H.P. Lovecraft
The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver
Moon Tiger – Penelope Lively

Other non-fiction (15)

Night – Elie Wiesel
The Spirit Level – Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett
The Doors of Perception – Aldous Huxley
Heaven & Hell – Aldous Huxley
The Spirit Level Delusion – Christopher Snowdon
The Secret Life of Bletchley Park – Sinclair McKay
Theology of Money – Philip Goodchild
The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction – Terry Eagleton
Borders: A Very Short Introduction – Alexander Diener & Joshua Hagen
Dialogues and Natural History of Religion – David Hume
History of the Peloponnesian War – Thucydides
The Roman Republic: A Very Short Introduction – David Gwynn
Political Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction – David Miller
Enough is Enough – Rob Dietz & Dan O’Neill
The Age of Revolution – Eric Hobsbawm

Total (47)

Worst book of the year?

I always aim to read books that I will enjoy. That includes books that challenge me and make me re-evaluate where I stand on certain issues. But it’s fair to say that I’ve not enjoyed them all. So what were my worst reads of the year?

In christianity, Marcus Borg’s take on Jesus leaves a lot to be desired. ‘Resurrection? Take it or leave it, it doesn’t matter’ – is his approach. His approach was just as eisegetical as Francis Chan’s in Erasing Hell.

In science, Daniel Tammet’s Thinking in Numbers didn’t live up to my hopes, but that was a blip on an otherwise fine set of books for the year.

Fiction was the worse overall. I can’t say I enjoyed either of the works of Jules Verne and Moon Tiger was just a bit of nothing. The lesson here seems to be: avoid anything with the word ‘moon’ in the title.

In other, the stand-out turkey was Christopher Snowden’s economically illiterate response to The Spirit Level. He did, however, take up the opportunity to comment (where possible, I try to inform authors that I have reviewed their work in order to allow them the right of reply). His lamentable response, which failed the blog comment policy for honesty, has been left up for all to see. I have considered annotating it to demonstrate clearly just how wrong he gets it, but have thus far refrained.

So of these, what was the worst? My award this year, for being utterly forgettable, goes to Moon Tiger.

Best book of the year?

It’s not all been doom and gloom. There have been some cracking reads which I would wholeheartedly recommend to you.

The opening title of the year, Tim Keller’s The Prodigal God, is short, thought-provoking and makes an excellent summary of the gospel, told in a fresh manner. Of the 3 spiritual autobiographies of the year, Stanley Hauerwas’ Hannah’s Child was incredibly moving and has given me a great insight into the man; I plan to read more of his work in the future, starting with The Peaceable Kingdom.

The science books feature quite a lot of the Very Short Introductions. Of these, the one on Mathematics was probably the best, as it took me back to my university days. Though the standout in this category has to be Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder; it’s perfectly paced, brilliantly written and very insightful.

In a year where fiction was the let-down category, the year was brightened (if that’s the right word) by Albert Camus’ The Outsider. It may not be the cheeriest of novels, but I did identify a lot with the main character. It’s a book that stays with you once you’ve read it.

In non-fiction, the stand out book was Enough is Enough – a really well thought out  radical vision for transforming global economics. It’s certainly ambitious and it’s not a panacea, but well worth considering.

So then, of those, which gets my book of the year thumbs up? As it’s my blog, I choose to use my prerogative and declare it a tie between The Age of Wonder and Hannah’s Child.

Coming up in 2014

I’ve mentioned a few already, but what else is in store for the year ahead? As per usual, my family have been very generous in giving me books for Christmas. I also have quite a few that I’ve picked up from various bookshops that I’ve wandered into. Though not a complete list, amongst those I’m looking forward to getting into are:

The Trumpet Major – Thomas Hardy
The Peaceable Kingdom – Stanley Hauerwas
On The Road – Jack Kerouac
The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets – Simon Singh
Letters to London – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern
Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science – Jim Al-Khalili

Your turn now:

  • What books did you get through in 2013?
  • What were your favourites?
  • What were your least favourites?
  • What will you be reading this year?

Book Review: The Age of Revolution by Eric Hobsbawm

There are times when one picks up books on hearing of the death of the author. Sometimes they are authors who you have never heard of before; sometimes they are those you are aware of but have never got round to reading any of their works. Hobsbawm was in the latter group. Knowing that he had written his “Age of…” books and his concept of the ‘long 19th century’ this was the obvious place to start.

That said, I must admit I had been puzzled by the statement that was a “Marxist historian” as I was unsure whether it meant he was an historian who was a Marxist or whether he was an historian of Marxist ideas. I am guessing you are probably more familiar with Hobsbawm than I, so you will know that the truth contains both of these but is not really either. It is that he looks at all history through a particular viewpoint. It is as though he has a particular set of glasses on which allow him to see certain things but which also hide others. Though to the casual reader, probably the most obvious manifestation is his constant use of the word ‘bourgeois’ which got to irritate me after a while.

The twin revolutions which he begins with are the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution in Britain. From the outset, he acknowledges that he is focused on the history of Europe from 1789 until 1848. The work is split into two parts: the first looking at the origins of various aspects of the period, the second looking at outcomes. This division is somewhat artificial and each chapter tends to scan the whole period, so there is some going back and forth. If anyone wanted to read a purely chronological history, then this is not the book for them.

Compared to likes of ancient historians such as Herodotus or Thucydides, Hobsbawm not only writes about a different era, but his historiography is entirely different. He covers this late on this book where he talks of the emergence of modern ways of doing history. Here, we have not so much a recounting of facts and discourse as though that were the entirety of historical study, but it is the analysis which links events idea, motivations, etc. which are the backbone of Hobsbawm’s work. Above all, though, the differentiating feature here is the economic history. He looks both at wealth and poverty and the motivations of each in the realm of revolutionary history. i.e. what are the conditions that create the appetite for revolution and those that create a resistance to it?

In answering these questions (which are implicit, Hobsbawm doesn’t ask them directly) we are presented with a complicated narrative, a tapestry of threads which pull together eventually to form a coherent picture. That picture is most definitely shaded in a particular way, which may well rub some people up the wrong way. That said, it illustrates very well the idea that no history can be told wholly neutrally. What you choose to include and omit and how you present it will inevitably betray the historian’s own thought process. This is something the reader of history simply has to bear in mind.

One of the reasons this particular era held so much interest for me was that it partly covered the period I studied at school for my GCSE history. In particular, one of the early topics that fascinated me was the Chartist movement, and that features heavily here. The take on it here was very different from that which I had at school, as my history teacher was a staunch Thatcherite. To hold the two views in balance is an interesting task for the reader and not particularly easy.

If there was any great disagreement I had with Hobsbawm is that at times he had a tendency to state what the aims were of the more conservative figures in his history. Here, I felt that Hobsbawm had looked at the outcomes of their actions and interpreted those as aims, seemingly downplaying the possibility that the thought process at the time may have overlooked these matters. In other words, he was projecting onto others his own conclusions. Any historian faces this as a possibility, though it came across more prevalent to me in this work than in most others.

While this is a weakness in the book, it is also an example of the book’s greatest strength; that being his great boldness. To read The Age of Revolution is to be challenged by it. One thing you cannot do is read and ignore Hobsbawm. He will provoke a reaction in any thoughtful reader, whether that be in violent agreement or vehement disagreement – or likely a mixture of both. One might certainly dispute his declaration that Marx was the greatest thinker of the 19th century; I certainly know a few Darwinists who might dispute that idea, and I can think of a few mathematicians and physicists who could challenge for such a title.

I intend to follow up with the sequel, The Age of Capital, though maybe not until 2015. There are other voices for me to engage with first, not least Marx himself. So do expect further reviews of The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital this year.

A year of employment

Today marks the first anniversary of my starting my current job. For those of you who were with me throughout 2012, you will know that I lost two jobs and spent 6 months unemployed. This is a brief look back at the last year and the legacy that the extended periods of unemployment have left.

Having gone to a lot of interviews and been rejected from them, I finally got a job offer just before Christmas 2012. I chose to keep this to myself until Christmas morning when I showed mum the email confirming my offer; that was my Christmas present to her – and yes, she did cry.

I knew that as I started a new job I would be going straight into a busy period as the company has a year end of the 31st of December and so the finance department would be working on the year end accounts, with an announcement due to the stock market in late February. Though not afraid of a bit of hard work, I was anticipating quite a few days when one might be working until 10pm in the office and coming in on Saturdays and Sundays, as is usual for finance staff at this time of year. So I was pleasantly surprised when I found out that the office gets locked up at 8pm and you get kicked out then. The front door is operated by a key rather than a swipe card so you can’t go in on a Saturday unless you have a key (and only a few people have these) so I ended up not working late once nor working at a weekend.

In fact, in the whole year I only worked twice on a Saturday, each time with several weeks’ notice and got a day off in lieu. One of the things that I’ve really enjoyed about the job has been the discipline we have as a team in terms of getting things right. The idea of “that’ll do” simply doesn’t occur; we operate by the motif “if it’s not 100% right, it’s wrong” and that suits my personality and how I work in a professional setting. In that respect, I really do enjoy my job.

Of course, being back in a work environment means having to work with people. In the past on this blog I’ve tried to express that I have some misanthropic tendencies – this is a touch further than a general introversion. There’s one chap in the office who likes to “work people out” and he will characterise them by certain proclivities or personality traits. After having been there for about 9 months he confessed to me that I was still a closed book to him. I don’t go out to the office socials and I avoid any hint of sociability wherever I can, including not going to the office Christmas party. To some, this may be seen as being unfriendly or anti-social, but in reality these are situations that make me intensely uncomfortable and which are best avoided. Just as, given the recent poor weather, one might look outside and see it is cold, wet & windy, you wouldn’t necessarily choose to walk out of the front door in shorts & t-shirt for a casual walk round the local park. But that’s the kind of level of discomfort I’m talking about. My avoidance of this, though not unique, is not necessarily the most common and so the more outgoing characters (who are those I get on with the least) cannot understand this, even if one tries to explain. Thankfully, though, there are other introverts in the department, even if they are not as extreme as I am.

But the year has not really been a resumption of “business as usual” as I had previously felt in my other jobs. Having been made redundant from one and fired from another, I am more aware of the tenuous grasp we have on our careers. Every time my line manager and the head of department had a private conversation, I couldn’t help but be reminded that I’d seen exactly the same happen in the days leading up to my dismissal from the 2nd job I lost in 2012. It physically hurts when that panic twang hits your chest. This was made all the worse as there was a major project going on at around the time my probationary period was due to be up. So my line manager and her boss were constantly going off into private meeting rooms and having conversations which I didn’t know about. Their calendars were blank so I couldn’t see any meeting agendas, so I got paranoid that they were discussing whether or not to keep me on. My probation was never discussed in the days or weeks leading up the date when it was due to expire and I was afraid to bring up the subject in case I came across as impertinent.

As it was, I passed my probationary period and I was “let in” on the secret which they had been discussing (which was a corporate transaction which is now a matter of public record). That put me as ease for a little while, though at that time my personal life took a turn for the worse. So with the combination of a “more secure” job in London combined with a very personal reason for wanting to leave Sussex behind, I made the decision to move, cutting nearly all ties with what had been my home for over 5 years. One or two of you know more details about why this was, but I don’t think I’m ready to put that into writing on the blog yet. In spite of wanting to leave that element of my life behind, I am reminded on a nearly weekly basis of that reason, which may stay with me, even if just as a curse on my lips, for years to come. If there’s anything I’ve come to realise more viscerally than ever before is that our past is not always something that can be left behind. When that past has painful elements to it, it leaves a psychological scar, but like Pavlov’s dogs, the pain can be reawakened at the right (or wrong) signal. So with the private conversations my line manager has with the head of department setting off my alarm bells, I’m not sure I can ever witness that without feeling like my job is on the line.

This is furthered by the fact that the company has recently undergone a change in the directorate. With change comes uncertainty; that much is true in any environment. In the business world, though, that uncertainty almost always surrounds someone’s livelihood. Having been through a redundancy process before, one cannot help but recognise the winds. It’s not a science; it is more akin to a farmer reading the sky. The storm clouds seem to be gathering. I don’t know much for certain; nothing’s been announced and if there were any private memos around, this would not be the place to disclose them.

A job for life is the thing of the past. In a society where are lawmakers try to make it easier to get rid of staff, those of us who might loosely be deemed the working class are constantly looking over our shoulders. I say loosely, because the traditional box labelled “working class” isn’t one I fit into well, especially as I have what one might deem a white-collar job. In this sense of working class, I mean those of us who are hired and fired, rather than those who do the hiring and firing.

The idea of joblessness is no longer a theory for me. I know to stay away from electricity substations (who could forget that public information film we all saw in school?) but only from theory. It is something I have experienced or witnessed. But joblessness is a tangible reality and one that is every bit as unpleasant as the reason I left Sussex. The difference between them is that having a job as source of income, I had the freedom to make the decision to leave, to take my life, pick it up and move it to a different location. Being unemployed has more repercussions; choice is something removed from you. You can’t just pick up and move on. Knowing what that means in the sense of breathing it every day, living with that helplessness, reliant on the decisions of others as to whether or not you will eat or have a roof over your head is a prospect I don’t want to face again, but if the past is something we must look in the eye then I know I can’t run from it forever. The chase will tire me out eventually.

For now, though, happy anniversary.

Book Review: Cosmology: A Very Short Introduction by Peter Coles

It is rare for me to walk into a bookshop and walk out again without buying at least one book; more often than not, it’s two or three at a time. This was one I picked up in the summer when I went to visit the royal observatory and national maritime museum in Greenwich, as there was an exhibition on at the latter which was on the subject of cosmology. There were various options open, though I chose not to get the enormous hardback book full of images from the Hubble space telescope.

For those of you who are unaware, I studied maths at university, with a particular emphasis on mathematical physics. In my first year, I took a free elective module in cosmology. So while I do review this book as an expert in the field, I do review it as an informed and educated amateur.

Of all branches of all the physical sciences, cosmology is by far the most far reaching. As far as we know for certain, biology is a science that is restricted to just one planet, in one solar system, in one galaxy, in one cluster of the universe. Yet cosmology is concerned with all those other planets, in other solar systems, in other galaxies, in other clusters. In short, it’s about as close to a study of everything that we reasonably have a name for. This is a far cry from the social sciences, such as economics, which are wholly human inventions and have no basis in nature. It’s this broad scope that has always fascinated me, though I admit this blog doesn’t always reflect the amount of time I spend thinking about it and marveling at it.

So how can Peter Coles, in 127 pages, do justice to such a vast topic? He begins with beginnings. He gives us an overview of how past civilizations have thought of what we would now refer to as the universe, or cosmos or heavens. In particular, the idea of how they came to be. After all, it seems a very human question to ask “how did this all begin”. The wealth and breadth of information that could be covered by any number of creation myths throughout history would be enough to fill the space Coles had available many times over. So he was given a tough hand to play with, knowing what to leave out and what level of detail to include. What he gives us is a few interesting pages that will require significant follow-up on the part of the interested reader. We get a whistle-stop tour that I felt was a little shallow. It provides some illumination, but little more than that provided by Rigel onto a street in rural Northumberland. It felt as though it was a request made by the editors rather than part of the plan of the author. Only in chapter 2 does he really get motoring.

So it is that we jump straight into Einstein’s general theory of relativity. This he does by wordy explanation and a few diagrams, all of which will be familiar to those who have studied the subject before. But this is an introduction and it should be accessible to the non-expert reader. As far as it does, Coles does very well, I think. He avoids getting bogged down in too much detail. Though some readers may wonder “how do they know that” I can say that the answer lies in the mathematical detail from which we are spared. This is an inherent problem in any science writing, but Coles deals with it as well as anyone could reasonably be expected to.

From the basic equivalence of gravitation and acceleration, he looks at some of the large scale geometry of the universe and the principles of symmetry and isotropy. It was nice to see mention here of Roger Penrose, for whom I have particular liking as it was one of his theories I studied for my Master’s under the tutelage of one of Penrose’s former students. All this is laying the groundwork for a later chapter, though first he moves away from some of the theoretical side, which had been the focus so far, onto the experimental side. Specifically, this was the work of Edwin Hubble on the redshifts of galaxies.

I would imagine almost any reader who is interested enough to pick up the book will have some assumption or expectation that it concern the Big Bang at some point. In that, Coles doesn’t disappoint us. What he does do though, is lead us along the historical path that (mostly) late 19th century into the 20th took. So having looked at the work of Hubble and Einstein he asks the reader “so what”? If we can show that the universe is expanding and, given what we know of general relativity, does this imply anything? It is this question to which the Big Bang is the answer we now give.

In his description, Coles takes in some important factors which may be new to some of the informed-but-not-expert readers, about particle physics and the unification of the forces of nature. Here, a very little quantum mechanics is thrown in, but not so much as to scare anyone off, hopefully. Interestingly, he makes reference here to the Higgs boson as the particle ‘responsible’ (if you will allow me such laxity with terminology) for mass. But it’s worth noting that the book was first published in 2001 and so this section is already a little out of date. Indeed, with such an exciting, fast-moving science such as cosmology, one might almost hope or expect that any such book would be out of date soon. I do not know if it is due for a revision in light of the discoveries of the last decade or so.

In some ways, the Big Bang is the highlight of the book. Or at least the climax of it. The early chapters led up to it while the later chapters show the consequences. In these, he looks carefully at the density of energy and matter in the universe, asking how this will affect the future of the universe. There is also a more astronomical take on cosmic structures, which is not something I got round to studying at university, but which is nonetheless fascinating and mind-boggling in its beautiful complexity.

The book closes almost with a recapitulation of the aims of Einstein in his later years. Here we return very much to the theoretical end of science (though some might harshly call it speculation) and ask questions about the unification of all known forces, as well as looking at the anthropic principles (strong and weak). The final chapter seems designed for the reader to ponder. These are open questions to which we don’t have anything resembling a firm answer as yet. These are the questions which make us think, which make science interesting.

In giving his overview, Coles has done as good a job as anyone who had been tasked with such a feat might be expected. At the points where physics starts to overlap or infringe upon philosophy, some might disagree with his particular take, but that is no great criticism. Science is, after all, a human endeavour, subject to the whims and emphases we each put on it, even if that simply be in the questions we ask. For those who had not studied cosmology but were interested, then I would recommend it. For those who simply want to be a little more informed, this isn’t a bad starting point, though there are plenty of references for further reading where one can get a little more depth than is covered here. I can’t say it knocked my socks off, though that may come from over-familiarity with much of the topics covered, and they were done so in a “standard” way. So maybe not one for the expert reader. But good, nonetheless.