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The road to unreality

Roger Penrose’s huge slab of a paperback - over 1100 large-format pages - promised much. ’The Sunday Times Top Ten Bestseller’, the cover shoutedabove the title The road to reality - a complete guide to the laws of the universe. Underneath, The Financial Times was quoted: ’This is a tour de force that is unlikely to be bettered this decade.’ Sounded good.

The preface went to some lengths to reassure me that, while there would be ’a certain amount of mathematical notation and the exploration of genuine mathematical concepts’ the book was intended to be accessible to that mythical character ’the general reader’. Then there was an elegantly written and entertaining ’prologue’ in the form of a fictionalised historical introduction to the Pythagoreans.

I managed to stay with the first chapter’s stuff on the various proofs of what I know as ’Pythagoras’s Theorem’ - stated when I was at school as follows: in any right-angled triangle, the square on (or of?) the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on (or of?) the other two sides. Then, on page 33, I was dropped into something called ’hyperbolic geometry’, with references to Escher’s fascinating geometric pictures. In this alien geometry, it seemed, neither the Pythagorean theorem or any of the premises on which its proofs relied worked at all. What is hyperbolic geometry? Unless I missed something crucial, I wasn’t told.

I gave up and had a look at a few more early chapters. Maths by the bucketful and no physics. After following pointers to things that sounded more concrete but still seemed to be mostly about maths, I really gave up. I hate doing this with any book, but I felt let down. I have read Hawking’s A Brief History of Time at least twice and stayed the course. More recently, Jim Al-Khalili has managed, in Quantum: a guide for the perplexed, to keep my interest - if not my understanding - to the end. Penrose, it seemed, hadn’t even tried.

If this book was a best-seller, there must be an awful lot of unread copies lying around on people?s bookshelves - or in charity shops!

This doesn’t bode well for another book I’m waiting for: The large, the small and the human mind. This is also by Roger Penrose, but with Abner Shimony, Nancy Cartwright and Stephen Hawking. The fact that it has an editor, M Longair, may or may not help. We shall see...

Personal site for Paul Marsden: frustrated writer; experimental cook and all-round foodie; amateur wine-importer; former copywriter and press-officer; former teacher, teacher-trainer, educational software developer and documenter; still a professional web-developer but mostly retired.

This site was transferred in June 2005 to the Sites4Doctors Site Management System, and has been developed and maintained there ever since.