Great Calculations by Colin Pask (book review).

You’re probably seen TV programmes where they do the top 100 of something or other. One that I doubt you would see is the top 50 calculations as provided by author Colin Pask in his book ‘Great Calculations’. What we have here is what happens after the observations and how scientists turned their information into formulas as they realise how the different factors affect each other in predictable ways. A lot of what we take for granted today wouldn’t have been possible otherwise and spread across thirteen chapters you will get some insight into all of that. Pask also points out in the introduction another fifty that didn’t meet his criteria, although looking at the size of this book, the top 100 would have made a massive volume.


It’s hardly surprising that these calculations spread across both time and space, especially space with four chapters devoted to it. Some things, like proving the world is round, well sort of as its flattened a bit at the poles, looks childishly simple trigonometry these days but it had to take some imagination to not only look but prove the Earth wasn’t flat. If anything, that is pretty much the key to much of the material here and a demonstration of Man’s own ingenuity.

I should point out that some purer maths is also revealed. Long before there was calculators and was still going strong when I was at school was the use of logarithms to multiply large numbers. John Napier had found that a certain mathematical progression when added together multiplied the original numbers. Seeing the maths here makes more sense now I’m a lot older although I suspect it never gets taught any more.

If you thought Babbage was the first inventor of the computer then think again. Sir William Thomson devised a pulley system to created in the 1870s to make, for the use of a modern word, a dedicated app that could predict the tides and there’s a beautiful diagram of the model. If you ever owned one of those ‘magic calculators’ in the days before the home computer then it’s a more advanced version of that. Further in the book, there is a reference to the Los Alamos computer, Mathematical Numerical Integrator And Computer, which got abbreviated to ‘MANIAC’.

Going back to space and as far back as Ptolemy, we see him working out how the planets revolved around the sun although was a little off the mark thinking they were in concentric circles than in parabolic orbits, it did show some advanced thinking in such an early age. It was only the religions that dissuaded others to follow in his footsteps for several centuries until Kepler’s work changed things. Even though its some five centuries old, this is how our knowledge of the cosmos developed. Seeing how the wobbles predicted the outer planets and turned earlier evidence into viable information should put those who were wondering how they had the data for orbits that took decades to orbit the sun. Along the way, the speed of light was proved not to be infinite.

Of course, it should go without saying that relativity and quantum mechanics are covered. There are a lot of useful facts and anecdotes throughout. I mean did you know that Einstein didn’t actually get the Nobel Prize for relativity but the discovery of law of photoelectric effect. With quantum mechanics, seeing how theories built up, each significant to the other is actually presented in a way that should make sense to those who find it confusing. For those who write SF, seeing an applied use to the formula for time dilation as you approach the speed of light should help you do your sums.

Pask covers a lot of ground and points out a lot of equalities when it came to women getting any credit for their own contribution to the work. Referring back to MANIAC’s operation at Los Almos, it wasn’t a male programmer who worked out the algorithms but a lady by the name of Mary Tsingou and who also turned the data into visual graphs. An important vital link in such revolutionary times. There are other fine examples and its a good sign that these ladies are acknowledged for their work here.

As you should recognise by now by the length of my review that I learnt a lot here. Even if you’re not mathematically inclined, the way the formulas are shown should give you some guidance if you need to calculate them. Pask makes an interesting point that modern computers are many times more powerful than MANIAC and I wonder how many of you will try them out through spreadsheet software. The fact that Pask includes a lot of the science that leads up to the formula will also help any of you budding scientists and a definite asset to upcoming potential SF writers to have on their shelf.

GF Willmetts

July 2015

(pub: Prometheus Books. 411 page indexed small enlarged paperback. Price: $18.00 (US), $19.00 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-63388-028-3)

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Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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