Letters reveal the sine of true love

Mathematics with Love
May 6, 2005

This unusual book looks at a fascinating episode in the life of a most unusual man. Today Barnes Wallis is best remembered as the inventor of the "bouncing bomb", used to attack German dams during the Second World War. In fact, this was by no means the most important of his achievements. I can appreciate this because I knew him slightly (he died in 1979), and during the 1940s, I navigated Wellington aircraft designed by him.

He fell in love just once - with his stepcousin, Molly Bloxam. There was a big age difference; when they first became seriously aware of each other, Barnes was 34 and Molly 17. Not unnaturally, Molly's father was uneasy about the relationship. Without voicing outright opposition, he decreed that rather than write ordinary love letters, Barnes must teach Molly mathematics. Such an approach might not sound promising but, nevertheless, it proved effective.

The letters extend over a short period, 1923 to 1924, and it is not until the last few months that the mathematics fade away and Barnes's inner feelings come to the fore.

Initially, then, there are extensive mathematical sections that will be skipped by all readers who lack a rudimentary knowledge of calculus. But those who are not complete beginners will be able to follow what Barnes wrote and, in fact, his explanations are admirably clear and concise; he would have made an excellent schoolteacher if he had not been so preoccupied with other matters. Molly's responses are touching; evidently she was aware of his feelings.

Reading this book, particularly the latter part, takes one back: some of the phrasing might have come straight out of a novel by P. G. Wodehouse - Uncle Charlie and Auntie Fanny flit lightly through the pages, and Barnes often tells Molly that "it is perfectly ripping of you to write to me". As an insight into the attitudes, the codes and morals of the England of 80 years ago, all this is, indeed, illuminating.

Molly's father's misgivings turned out to be needless. The couple married with the approval of both their families, and the marriage was happy right up to the time of Barnes's death at 92. Mary Stopes-Roe is their daughter, who trained as a psychologist and historian. After she retired, she discovered her parents' courtship letters and, rightly, decided to publish them.

Some may open this book, see pages of mathematical formulae, and decide to go no further. This would be a great pity because skipping over the mathematics does not detract from the enjoyment of the main story. All in all, this biography is a fitting tribute to a man to whom our country, and indeed the world, owes a great deal.

Sir Patrick Moore is an astronomer whose next book will be Atlas of the Universe . He was an RAF navigator during the Second World War.

Mathematics with Love: The Courtship Correspondence of Barnes Wallis, Inventor of the Bouncing Bomb

Author - Mary Stopes-Roe
Publisher - Palgrave Macmillan
Pages - 363
Price - £19.99
ISBN - 1 4039 4498 9

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