09 Nov

Alex Through the Looking Glass – Alex Bellos

I promise I don’t only read books that Katie gives me.

‘How Life Reflects Numbers and Numbers Reflect Life’: you have to admire the attempt to make inevitable title for the sequel to Alex in Numberland make sense. A more pedantic author would have gone with Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alex Found There, but then again, a more pedantic author would probably have written a more tedious book. Personally, I would have gone with Do the Fucking Maths, but that’s tenuous even if you place the stress where you need to.

Alex Through the Looking Glass seemed to be perfectly pitched for someone with my level of maths education. If this is intentional, it’s an absolute disaster. I got a good maths A-level without too much difficulty, but was sufficiently baffled by parts of my further maths course that I outright failed a paper and got an overall grade that my wife later advised me not to include on my CV. That further maths course was with a different exam board to my main maths A-level, so I studied some things twice and some apparently quite important things not at all. My level of maths education is not level at all. It’s lopsided and ridiculous. It’s impossible to believe that this book could have been pitched at me, so I think we can assume that seemed that way simply because it’s quite a good book.

Better yet, it cleared up a few of the things that I never understood from my further maths course, and it included a few amusing anecdotes that I would be looking for a way to drop into conversation if only I had a good enough memory to do so.

I recommend buying this book, and then taping it to your copy of The Knowledge to correct some of the latter’s clear and acknowledged omissions.

I have contacted OCR to let them know that I have filled the gaps in my understanding, but apparently this is not sufficient to bump my Further Maths A-level up a grade. I therefore award Alex Through the Looking Glass no stars.


17 Aug

The Knowledge – Lewis Dartnell

Not about the streets of London. The Knowledge attempts to summarize the essentials for ‘rebooting’ civilization after a global catastrophe.

About three chapters into The Knowledge, I went to a picnic for science communicatiors and played a game of Kubb1 with the author that lasted so long it seemed entirely likely that civilization would have collapsed by the time we finished. Late in the third hour, despite some valiant cheating by Dr Dartnell, we lost.

The whole experience rather took the edge off the book’s sense of scholarly authority. But it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of it. Dartnell’s explanations are clear and succinct in that way that not only makes new material easy to understand, but makes reading about things you already know strangely enjoyable. And the premise – that this is a world-rebuilding manual for the survivors of a global catastrophe – is a compelling framework for the reader and a wonderful playground for Dartnell’s knowledge and enthusiasm. Or at least, I thought so.

According to the Guardian‘s Steven Poole:

The conceit, then, that this is a handbook for rebooting modern civilisation is really just a cute way of framing what turns out to be something slightly different but arguably more interesting to a present-day readership. The Knowledge is a terrifically engrossing history of science and technology.

In the Telegraph, on the other hand, Tom Chivers complains:

The only jarring note is that sometimes it seems as though Dartnell is taking all this end-of-the-world stuff seriously[…]. In a discussion of how ferroconcrete mixes the tensile strength of iron with the compressive strength of concrete, for example, you are solemnly informed that “this final innovation really unlocks the potential of concrete for aiding reconstruction after the apocalypse”.

Both of these assessments seem a little off the mark to me. One of the book’s strengths is that it mines its premise for every bit of interest it can find. There are interesting lessons in what a postapocalyptic civilization could scavenge and why, for example, which a straightforward history wouldn’t teach. But these aren’t a cop-out or a diversion: Dartnell isn’t about to leave interesting material on the table, and once he’s taught you to scavenge he’ll explain what to do if you can’t. And it’s appropriate for the tone to be serious: the setting may be fanciful, but this is life-or-death stuff in the real world, too.

Indeed, some of the most interesting parts of the book explore how a rebooting civilization could take a different path to the same destination. Some of these are matters of necessity: the survivors of the speculative apocalypse wouldn’t be able to rely on easily-accessible fossil fuel reserves. Others simply reflect the freedom that clued-up rebooters would have from the haphazard way human knowledge has developed. Dartnell imagines wooden sailing ships finding their longitude using not intricate timepieces like those developed by John Harrison, but radio signals from the post-apocalyptic prime meridian – because if you know how to do both, radio signals are probably easier. A straightforward history could include asides on these alternatives, but it wouldn’t be so elegant.

The coming apocalypse also gives The Knowledge a very practical bent, which has left me with a real itch to make some soap. On the other hand, that practicality means that this is a manual for reconstructing a narrow slice of civilisation. Dartell admits that he doesn’t include any grounding in maths, and trusts the survivors to develop their own culture: fair enough, but there are technologies in both areas that could have fit nicely within the scope of the book. Perhaps that’s something for an appendix in a future edition. It’s certainly not a lack I felt when reading: it’s just difficult to read a book like this and not start looking at the world through its weird, post-apocalyptic prism. Which is to say, it provokes curiosity about how things work and how technology changes our lives, which I’m pretty sure the author would call a win.

Unfortunately, The Knowledge does not preserve the rules of Kubb for future generations, and so, with a heavy heart, I award it no stars.


  1. If you’ve seen two groups of people standing in a park throwing bits of wood at each other, that was probably Kubb, unless it was low-tech gang warfare or LARPing.