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Jan 2006
Isaac Newton - James Gleick - Harper Perennial, 2004
* * * * *
Sir Isaac Newton must be a total nightmare for a biographer. He came from an undistinguished family (with which he had virtually nothing to do after his childhood), moved barely 150 miles in his entire life, never married or took lovers and was by all accounts an arrogant, unpleasant loner with no real friends. What makes him interesting is of course his writings, which revolutionised physics and continue to be relevant to this day. James Gleick has cleverly opted to focus on his intellectual life and eschew psychological speculation and personal anecdote. The result is a short, pacy and elegantly written book that is about as good a biography of Newton as you could hope to find.

Nov 2006
A Short History of Nearly Everything - Bill Bryson - Black Swan, 2004
* * * *
I came to this book with some reservations. Having once been an inhabitant of the Land of Science (and, thanks to New Scientist and popular science books, still an occasional visitor), I was wary of an outsider (a travel writer for goodness sake) writing on subjects with which I have more than a passing familiarity. Fortunately, Bryson’s rambling and digressive approach to places translates well to the intellectual realms of science, and the humour, interest in people and penetrating outsider’s observations that distinguish his travellogues are equally in evidence here. I particularly liked his summary of the current dire state of cosmological theory (with its clever but hideously ad-hoc hypotheses of inflation and dark matter/energy): “The upshot of all this is that we live in a universe whose age we can’t quite compute, surrounded by stars whose distance from us and each other we don’t altogether know, filled with matter we can’t identify, operating in conformance with physical laws whose properties we don’t truly understand.” Yup, that about sums it up.

Nov 2006
The Classical World - Robin Lane Fox - Penguin, 2006
* * * *
This is subtitled “An epic history of Greece and Rome”, and if what you mean by epic is “wide-ranging but not very deep”, then that’s a good description. It consists of short (ten page) chapters covering all aspects of the Greek and Roman civilisations from the time of Homer (c. 750 BC) to the end of the reign of Emperor Hadrian in 138 AD. Inevitably, with so many topics to cover - including social and economic developments as well as the more traditional political and military ones - coverage is somewhat superficial and bitty, but Lane Fox cleverly imposes a sense of narrative by tracing the development of the three great themes of freedom, justice and luxury, and by framing the whole thing as a retrospective from Hadrian’s point of view. Ultimately I don’t think that it contributes any radical new perspectives on its subject matter, but I am grateful that my spotty knowledge of classical history (derived mostly from writers such as Mary Renault, Steven Saylor and Lyndsey Davies) is now rather more complete.

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