What could be more appropriate for a Friday afternoon than mathematics? In particular, Einstein’s Heroes: Imagining the world through the language of mathematics (2003), the brilliant first book of Australian mathematician and writer Robyn Arianrhod.
Here’s part of a review I wrote on the book for the Sydney Morning Herald and some snippets from a conversation I had with Arianrhod soon after.
The above remark by Albert Einstein – ‘If at first an idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it’ – 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 the 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, Albert Einstein, was so inspired by Maxwell’s mathematics – which Einstein had had to teach himself because his teachers didn’t include it in their classes – 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 book Arianrhod tells the story of the three scientists whose pioneering work paved the way to 20th century physics. Maxwell’s story forms the central thread, the stories of Newton and Faraday its subplots. But, like several books on science written for a general readership, Einstein’s Heroes is many things: biography, history, physics, mathematics. Arianrhod presents science as the Australian physicist 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 suggests, Einstein’s Heroes is ultimately a book about mathematics, a language Arianrhod calls ‘a celebration of the human spirit’. In Maxwell’s work, she has found the perfect medium for exploring its beauty.
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’ worked like alchemy in her book, infusing it with so much spirit that it’s utterly irresistible to read. Arianrhod brings to her subject so much care, intelligence 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.
Arianrhod says that Maxwell ‘always tried to enlighten rather than dazzle his readers’. I could think of no better praise for Arianrhod’s own work.
I loved Einstein’s Heroes so much that I interviewed Arianrhod soon after it was published for Good Reading magazine. Given her great fluency with words, I wasn’t surprised to hear that Arianrhod has always loved language and once dreamt of writing like Graham Greene or Tolstoy. But she said that all changed in year 11, when she ‘first encountered mathematical proof in the algebraic, linguistic sense’ – she was ‘entranced’.
After completing her undergraduate degree in pure maths and statistics in Melbourne, Arianrhod decided against a career in finance and decided instead to live without technology in a hut in northern NSW. As you do. While in her hut she read books about physics such as Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics but found them frustrating: ‘They just said, The maths is amazing, maths is the language. But they didn’t say why. I wanted to know how maths led to this incredible vision of the universe we now have. So from my tree-house I went into the nearby university town of Armidale to ask, Can anyone tell me about black holes?’
A scientist at the university told her about black holes and then suggested she study with him. She did – and ended up writing a dissertation on relativity and time. It was then that Arianrhod decided to combine her two loves – maths and literature – to write about mathematics to supply what was missing from the popular physics books. She returned to Melbourne and did a PhD in Einstein’s relativity at Monash University, where she is now an Adjunct Research Fellow in the School of Mathematical Sciences.
Arianrhod wrote Einstein’s Heroes to explain that maths is ‘the language with which we tell stories about the universe’. She says at school all we learn in maths is the grammar, not the poetry. Through Einstein’s Heroes, courtesy of the beautiful equations of Robert Clerk Maxwell, we can begin to appreciate the poetry of mathematics.
Ever since reading Einstein’s Heroes I’ve been waiting desperately for whatever Arianrhod would write next, knowing she was working on a book about women mathematicians. It’s here. Her second book – Seduced by Logic: Emilie du Chatelet, Mary Somerville and the Newtonian revolution – was published this month and I’ll be reviewing it for the Australian. Stay posted.