BOOK REVIEW / Brilliant ideas lost down the plughole: 'The Hutchinson Dictionary of Ideas' - Helicon Publishing, 25 pounds

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The Independent Online
WHAT should a dictionary of ideas contain? Well, ideas for a start. By this measure, the Hutchinson Dictionary of Ideas fails to live up to expectations. Take the entry on Archimedes for example: '287-212BC. Greek mathematician who made major discoveries in geometry, hydrostatics, and mechanics. He formulated a law of fluid displacement (Archimedes' principle) and is credited with the invention of the Archimedes screw, a cylindrical device for raising water.'

The entry continues with some biographical information and the inevitable tale of his jumping from a bath and running naked through the streets shouting 'Eureka', but it omits to tell us what Archimedes' principle is.

Looking up Leonardo Fibonacci we learn that the Fibonacci numbers, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, . . . of which each is the sum of its two predecessors, 'have unusual characteristics with possible applications in botany, psychology, and astronomy (for example, a more exact correspondence than is given by Bode's law to the distances between the planets and the sun).'

Following the arrow signifying a cross-reference to Bode's law, we discover that Johann Elert Bode devised Bode's law, but any formulation of that law has gone down the plughole with Archimedes' bathwater. Avogadro's number, meanwhile, 'still has relevance for today's atomic studies' - but evidently not enough for a Dictionary of Ideas to tell us what it is.

Wondering about the system that could have led to such priorities, I turned to 'chaos theory', only to be told nothing more helpful than that it is the 'branch of mathematics used to deal with chaotic systems'. Even the example given - an oil platform subjected to irregular and unpredictable wave stress - does nothing to explain the fundamental concept of chaos theory: total unpredictability in a deterministic system.

Unpredictability is also a feature. While 'psychosis' and 'schizophrenia' merit entries, there is nothing for 'creativity' or 'humour'. Freud on Dreams is in, Freud on Jokes is out. 'Werewolf' is in, 'lycanthropy' is out. The 21 full- page 'Feature Articles' are heavily overladen with ethical topics and rounded off with 'Urban design in the twentieth century' and 'The city and Utopia'. Town planning seems to have come off better than editorial


Perhaps I am being unfairly influenced by my own interests. The book may be stronger in other areas than mathematics, science and psychology. The entries covering religion and philosophy appear to do their job very well, and I am assured that the entry on Julia Kristeva is a masterpiece of succinct explanation. But does she deserve more space than Noam Chomsky?

The book would have benefited immeasurably from fewer and longer entries, a wider variety of feature articles and a proper index. On the plus side, it is excellently designed, with the text broken up with tables, chronologies and a superb collection of quotations. The ambitious breadth of topics is also impressive (even if, as appears to have been the case, too many topics have been covered by writers who do not fully understand them) and there is a wealth of information on everyone from Aaron to Zwingli.

Taken overall, however, it is a great disappointment. It is a splendid concept to have a Dictionary of Ideas, where one can look up contemporary and discarded theories. It could have been a history of human thought and scientific and cultural evolution. Sadly, in its execution, the whole thing appears to have been not a good idea at all.