First World War Posts

Alex Bellos, “Alex Through the Looking Glass”

9781408845721I spent the better part of a morning reading bestselling author Alex Bellos’s absolutely delightful book Alex Through the Looking Glass: How Life Reflects Numbers, and Numbers Reflect Life. ( The American edition is called The Grapes of Math.) He uses anecdotes and examples from real life but neatly dovetails it with the history of modern mathematics, interweaving it with accounts of legendary mathematicians. Some of the text is very technical but is still accessible. This book is written for the layperson, not a specialist. But golly, this man is informative. I love the way he has strung together maths trivia with crucial bits of knowledge effortlessly. I admire the way he talk about eminent mathematicians as if they were his buddies but very respectfully places them in context. It could be Newton, Leibniz, Archimedes, Brahmagupta et al. He makes you chuckle when making reference’s to Euclid’s Elements reads like a recipe book.

And then I discovered this tweet. The book has been shortlisted for an award.

Alex Bellos (@alexbellos) tweeted at 3:22 PM on Wed, Aug 05, 2015:
Thrilled to make @royalsociety Winton Prize shortlist w @matthewcobb @WanderingGaia @jimalkhalili @jonmbutterworth +

His previous book, Alex’s Adventures in Numberland was shortlisted for the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize. Alex Bellos writes a blog for The Guardian. It is worth browsing through. He makes maths fun!

He helps rearrange one’s muddled significance and timeline of eminent mathematicians through the ages but contextualises them very well, it won’t be easy to dismiss as “boring maths”.  For instance, “Thales is ..the first person to have a specific mathematical discovery named after him: Thale’s Theorem, which states that the triangle inscribed inside a semicircle has a right angle. He also used his deductive powers to predict the solar eclipse of 585 BCE, and improve after a few bad years. He bought all the olive presses he could at rock bottom prices and when the upturn came he got rich. A century later, the comic playwright Aristophanes made fun of the great sage by having him fall in a ditch because he was lost in thought, gazing at the sky. Thales is not just remembered as history’s first mathematician and philosopher, but also as history’s first absent-minded professor.” (p.59)

Or the story about The Scottish Book

Between the First and Second World Wars, a clique of mathematicians in Lwow, Poland, met regularly in a coffee shop, the Scottish Cafe, to discuss mathematical morsels such as the pancake theorem. Hugo Steinhaus, a principal member of the group, wondered whether the theorem could be extended into three dimensions. ‘Can we place a piece of ham under a meat cutter so that meat, bone and fat are cut in halves?’ he asked. His friend Stefan Banach proved that such a cut is possible, using a theorem attributed to two others in a group, Stanislaw Ulam and Karol Borsuk. Banach’s result has subsequently been popularized as the ‘ham sandwich theorem’, because it is equivalent to stating that one can divide a ham sandwich in two with a single slice that cuts each slice of bread and the ham into two equal sizes, no matter how each piece is positioned and whatever is shape.

The mathematicians who gathered in the Scottish Cafe kept a thick notebook of all the questions they asked each other, which they entrusted to the care of the head waiter when they went home. Eventually known as The Scottish Book, it is a unique collaborative work, and not just because of how it was written. ( It was never published as a book, but some of its problems appeared later in journals.) 


Ulam later joined the Manhattan Project.

I would strongly recommend buying this book. It is the kind of nonfiction book you dip into and come away feeling time has been well spent. It would also be a useful addition to the reference section of a library, particularly of schools.

Alex Bellos Alex Through the Looking Glass: How Life Reflects Numbers, and Numbers Reflect Life Bloomsbury, London, 2014, rpt 2015. Pb. pp. 340 Rs 399.

13 August 2015 

Esther Freud “Mr Mac and Me”

Esther Freud “Mr Mac and Me”

Mr Mac and MeMac is working on a bright purple grape hyacinth. He has it laid out on a sheet of paper and is examining its tiny solid head. ‘No.’ he mutters to himself, ‘no.’

I’ve let myself in, but now I’m not sure whether to disturb him.

‘Hello.’ He looks up and catches me at the door, and he tells me that never has he spent a morning with a flower and known less about it when he was through. ‘Look,’ he lays it out. And together we peer at the dense purple blocks of it, solid as wax above its stalk of blazing green. 

(p.195, Mr Mac and Me)

Thomas Magg, the crippled twelve-year-old son of the Blue Anchor owner, lives on the coast of Suffolk. A little before First World War breaks, Tom befriends a new visitor to their village, who it turns out is the renowned architect, Charles Rennie Macintosh. The two develop a  cordial relationship, primarily focused upon their common love for painting. Thomas or Tom as he is often referred enjoys doodling ships and boats in the margins of his notebooks, much to the exasperation of his school teacher. Whereas Mr Macintosh or Mr Mac as Tom calls him exquisitely paints water colours of the local wild flowers. ( In fact the cover of Esther Freud’s novel uses a detail from a beautiful 1915 water colour and pencil drawing Charles Macintosh made of Fritillaria.) Soon the two men “bond” over their love for painting and are able to share the silence of working together in peace. ( “There’s a thick, warm silence as we work. I’ve sense that silence, when I used to watch them, but now that I’m inside it, it’s as solid as a coat.” ) At times, Mrs Margaret Macdonald, an accomplished painter herself specialising in the technique of Gosse, joins her husband in Suffolk. ( Her most famous Gesso work was a set of panels, larger than doors, commissioned by a private collector and called The Seven Princesses. ) They are from Glasgow where along with Margaret’s sister, Frances and her husband, Herbert MacNair, they were known as The Four. Mr Mac was also responsible for designing the new Glasgow School of Art, commissioned in 1897 by the School Director, Francis Newberry. (His descriptions of the project are a pleasure to read in the crm-pansynovel.) With the Great War breaking life in Suffolk is also affected. Soldiers come and stay, refugees arrive, and locals living near to the sea move to safer places  inland and with the turmoil suspicion falls upon Mr Mac. The locals, goaded by Mr Gory, a newcomer himself, rapidly come to believe that Mr Mac is a spy since he moves around with his binoculars or spyglass observing the coastline. Before the war is over, Mr Mac is arrested and Thomas leaves Suffolk to travel the world.

Mr Mac and Me is a stunningly beautiful novel. All fiction is ultimately a labour of love, butMargaret Macintosh, Seven Princesses this is infused with love and beauty on every page. Every description is magnificent such as of the child observing Mr Mac paint — “I smile because he’s painted the river as if it is his own”. The descriptions of the wild flowers, even of the sweet william blooms on Tom’s mother’s table in the pub add a dash of colour, it is as if you can almost get the gentle and sweet fragrance of the wild flowers. While reading I kept wondering if some of these observations about watching a painter at work stemmed from Esther Freud’s own experience of seeing her father Lucien Freud at work. An answer was to be had in an interview she gave to the Guardian. She says “It’s funny, I didn’t even think about that until my publisher pointed out that the book describes how an artist works through the eyes of a child. And that was exactly my experience with my father; I slowly came to understand the artistic process through watching him paint. I’d have these little realisations like: oh, it’s going to take years! Or, as it says about Mackintosh in the book, that he was showing the insides of something – he hadn’t just abandoned it halfway through. I enjoyed trying to follow his thought process.”  ( 31 august 2014,  )

Sadly the buildings of Glasgow School of Art that Charles Rennie Macintosh designed were severely damaged in a fire on 23 May 2014. In fact, Esther Freud “heard the news on the last day of checking the proofs. The timing did feel extraordinary. I felt so connected to him and so aware that he had had enough bad luck already.”

Mr Mac and Me is a pleasure to read. It has the knack of drawing  you in to the early twentieth century world of Suffolk without seeming like historical fiction, yet it leaves a warm glow of discovering a new world, creating a new space in one’s mind and introducing the reader to a significant designer of the post-Impressionist and Art Nouveau movement in Great Britain.  There is a lovely article published on 16 August 2014 in the Guardian describing how Esther Freud came to write this novel: .

Please buy it! You won’t be sorry. This is a book for keeps.

Esther Freud Mr Mac and Me Bloomsbury India, 2014. Pb. pp. 300 Rs. 499