Re­nais­sance man’s reach for the stars

The Mail on Sunday - Event - - BOOKS - ROSIE WILBY

The Quan­tum Astrologer’s Hand­book Michael Brooks Scribe £16.99 ★★★★★

Fit­tingly for a book about quan­tum me­chan­ics, Michael Brooks zips glee­fully through time and space to build a personal and hu­man ac­count of the colour­ful life story of 16th-cen­tury poly­math Jerome Car­dano. He de­scribes the math­e­ma­ti­cian, doc­tor and astrologer as a ‘friend’, and em­ploys the quirky de­vice of imag­in­ing he is vis­it­ing the frail ge­nius in his prison cell in 1570 to ex­plain to him the ‘fu­ture’ sig­nif­i­cance of his discoverie­s in our un­der­stand­ing of how the uni­verse works.

Car­dano turns out to be an in­trigu­ing fig­ure, de­serv­ing of Brooks’ ob­ses­sion.

Born out of wed­lock into a Re­nais­sance Italy that for most of its in­hab­i­tants was ‘bro­ken by cen­turies of in­ter­nal con­flict and civil war, and rot­ten with plague, poverty and su­per­sti­tion’, he em­barked upon an un­likely and event­ful ca­reer.

This was an era when al­ge­braic rules were sum­marised in po­etic form, spats be­tween math­e­ma­ti­cians played out like soap opera and scores were set­tled in pub­lic de­bates.

A provo­ca­teur un­afraid to cham­pion dan­ger­ous ideas, Car­dano in­vented prob­a­bil­ity the­ory just so that he could win at the gam­bling ta­ble and had to over­come bans on his right to prac­tise medicine and to pub­lish books. Yet his fame and rep­u­ta­tion even­tu­ally grew enough to see him called upon to draw up as­tro­log­i­cal charts for the rich and pow­er­ful, not least a young, sickly King Ed­ward VI.

This is not a straight­for­ward bi­og­ra­phy. To place his sub­ject in con­text, Brooks in­ter­sperses Car­dano’s com­pelling nar­ra­tive with ex­pla­na­tions of the sci­ence be­hind the man.

He largely suc­ceeds in mak­ing mind-bend­ing con­cepts and math­e­mat­i­cal ab­strac­tions, such as quan­tum en­tan­gle­ment and imag­i­nary num­bers, ac­ces­si­ble via clear vi­su­al­i­sa­tions and links to the ev­ery­day world. Where pure aca­demic works would talk only of pho­tons, Brooks imag­ines them as postmen.

To ex­plain the idea of a ‘su­per­po­si­tion’ of mul­ti­ple pos­si­ble states, he pon­ders what in­for­ma­tion the sealed en­velopes they carry con­tain. ‘Maybe it’s a bill? Maybe it’s a love

letter? Maybe it’s an or­der for uni­corn’s horn? Once they are opened and read, how­ever, the in­for­ma­tion is sud­denly de­fined.’

How­ever, the tricksy part of the sci­ence as­pect of the book is that so many other no­table names need to be men­tioned too. Although lively asides about Schrödinge­r’s open mar­riage and his col­lab­o­ra­tion and even­tual ri­valry with Ein­stein are fas­ci­nat­ing, they oc­ca­sion­ally feel like in­ter­rup­tions. Car­dano has been con­jured into life with such af­fec­tion that it is hard to leave him.

Fin­ish­ing off by ref­er­enc­ing mod­ern ideas such as string the­ory, Brooks ad­mits that, in the quest for an ex­pla­na­tion of ev­ery­thing, ‘we are still very much on the road to­wards un­der­stand­ing... with only the faintest hope of ar­riv­ing at our des­ti­na­tion’.

He and Car­dano make for very en­ter­tain­ing and il­lu­mi­nat­ing com­pan­ions on that end­less jour­ney.

A Dutch star chart for the South­ern Hemi­sphere from 1700. Be­low: a 16th-cen­tury print of Jerome Car­dano

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.