Renaissance man’s reach for the stars
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