Bring Up The Bodies and Wolf Hall and a scientific mystery

Cover of Bring Up the BodiesI have just finished reading the fantastic Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel‘s telling of the story of the rise of Thomas Cromwell and the coming of the English reformation: a marvellous book that does what the best historical fiction must – makes us understand that the people of the past were just the same as ourselves.

Handily this leaves me with just a few days before the publication of the sequel, Bring up the Bodies, the story of Cromwell’s role in the downfall and destruction of Anne Boleyn which the early enthusiastic reviews on Amazon suggest is an even better novel.

But Wolf Hall does also point towards a scientific mystery – the rise and disappearance of the “English sweating sickness“.

This fever killed many thousands of people (including most of Cromwell’s family) in the late 15th and then 16th centuries, mainly (as the name suggests) in England (though Ireland was also badly affected and there were several outbreaks in continental Europe also) before seemingly disappearing without a trace.

Several different causes have been postulated – including spread by lice and ticks – but nothing is conclusive.

The problem with reading about these sort of things is that it is very easy to quickly become quite scared by them: human understanding of viruses is still quite rudimentary in many ways and the risk that our era could be struck down by a mystery disease is a real one. The rapid decline in the effectiveness of anti-bacterial vaccination adds to sense of fear.

The second law of thermodynamics and the history of the universe

Oxford Physicist Roger Penrose to Speak at Bro...
Image via Wikipedia

I had to go on quite a long plane journey yesterday and I bought a book to read – Roger Penrose‘s work on cosmology: Cycles of Time: An Extraordinary New View of the Universe

I bought it on spec – it was on the popular science shelves: somewhere I usually avoid at least for the physical sciences, as I know enough about them to make hand waving more annoying than illuminating, but it seemed to have some maths in it so I thought it might be worthwhile.

I have only managed the first 100 pages of it so far, so have not actually reached his new cosmology, but already feel it was worth every penny.

Sometimes you are aware of a concept for many years but never really understand it, until some book smashes down the door for you. “Cycles of Time” is just such a book when it comes to the second law of thermodynamics. At ‘A’ level and as an undergraduate we were just presented with Boltzmann’s constant and told it was about randomness. If anybody talked about configuration space or phase space in any meaningful sense it passed me by.

Penrose gives both a brilliant exposition of what entropy is all about in both intuitive and mathematical form but also squares the circle by saying that, at heart, there is an imprecision in the law. And his explanation of why the universe moves from low entropy to high entropy is also brilliantly simple but also (to me at least) mathematically sound: as the universe started with such a low entropy in the big bang a random walk process would see it move to higher entropy states (volumes of phase space).

There are some frustrating things about the book – but overall it seems great. I am sure I will be writing more about it here, if only to help clarify my own thoughts.

In the meantime I would seriously recommend it to any undergraduate left wondering what on earth entropy really is. In doing so I am also filled with regret at how I wasted so much time as an undergrad: university really is wasted on the young!

(On breakthrough books: A few years ago I had this experience with Diarmaid MacCulluch’s Reformation and protestantism. People may think that the conflict in the North of Ireland is about religion – but in reality neither ‘side’ really knows much about the religious views of ‘themuns’. That book ought to be compulsory reading in all Ireland’s schools – North and South. Though perhaps the Catholic hierarchy would have some issues with that!)