Stranger than we can Imagine by John Higgs

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Review by Peter Hobson

Subtitled “Making Sense of the Twentieth Century”, Higgs’ book takes fifteen of what he (and I think many people) consider to be seminal concepts, paradigm shifts and events in the last hundred years that have changed our appreciation and understanding of ourselves and the world we live in. The book has a reasonable set of accessible works in a bibliography and a short section of further notes and sources arranged by chapter.

The only real criticism I have of this book and here I do not blame the author, is that on the back (and indeed on the press release that accompanied my uncorrected proof) it is described as a journey in which “we wander through some of the more curious backwaters of the twentieth century”. Perhaps it is my perspective that is curious, in the sense of strange, here but it seemed to me to be mostly a fairly obvious set of mainstream events and concepts. That is not to say that Higgs fails to write about them well and in an interesting way but just that the reader might feel slightly short-changed in this respect by the back cover “blurb” – caveat lector.

In fifteen chapters we travel from Relativity (in the Einsteinian sense) all the way via War, Nihilism, Sex and Chaos (in the mathematical sense) to Networks. What Higgs does well is to explain why these things (I can’t quite conceive of the collective noun to encompass all the chapters) were important in shaping the previous Century and thus affect the way we are, the way we live and the way in which we think today. One can certainly argue with Higgs’ arguments in some places but surely that discussion is exactly what a book like this should catalyse. His chapter on War appears not to consider in any real detail the growth in the last third of the century of individual and then more organised, indeed globalised, acts of terrorism. I think that the emergence of the concept of a “terrorist state” would be worthy of a chapter in its own right. On the other hand I would not have thought to include as an illuminating concept, nihilism.

It is a challenge to review a book like this; for me it would be easy to distil into this review the chapters which relate to scientific/mathematical concepts, and it is interesting to see some clear parallels in some of the chapters with the central argument espoused by Arthur I Miller, in his book Colliding Worlds, of a coming together of science and art, or at least new science influencing new art. You probably won’t always agree with Higgs about how central some of his chosen themes are to world we live in today and I am sure, dear readers, that you will have your own set of missing chapters. That surely is part of the fun of reading a book such as this one, so I suggest you do so and continue the lively discussion. To start you off for me the really surprising absent chapter is surely the one titled Women.

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Peter Hobson is a particle physicist who totally agrees that his imagination is not up to comprehending the world he apparently lives in. He posts on his weblog Morgana’s Cat from time to time.

John Higgs, Stranger than we can Imagine (Weidenfeld & Nicholson: London, 2015). ISBN 9780297870890, 334 pages, paperback.

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