Two Book Reviews

Blogging has been light here, trying to finish a complete draft of the book I’m working on, this should be done very soon. Here are a couple all-too-short reviews of books with some relation to math or physics.

A Doubter’s Almanac

The main character of Ethan Canin’s new novel A Doubter’s Almanac is a mathematician, one who solves a great problem early on in his career (as a graduate student in Berkeley, then a faculty member at Princeton). It’s a beautifully written work, with a remarkably convincing portrayal of a talented young mathematician struggling with a difficult problem and making his way through life. I wouldn’t have guessed that anyone who hadn’t lived and worked in this kind of environment would be able to describe it so realistically.There are only a couple false notes in the many details of the part of the story set in academia. In particular, I don’t think anyone would consider a “subchairmanship” to be much of an inducement, even at Princeton, and they don’t give Abel Prizes to young geniuses. Besides getting the details right, the characters come up with some quite insightful remarks about mathematics, including some that deal with the way talent and immersion in a mathematical problem may alienate one from the rest of the humanity.

While I greatly enjoyed the first half of the book, I have to admit that the later part held less interest, turning away from academia to a long story of family relations and the ravages of alcoholism. Not at all an upbeat book, if that’s what you’re looking for, but I can’t think of another novel as good that so deeply engages with some aspects of mathematics and the mathematical life.

Black Hole Blues

Janna Levin’s Black Hole Blues has just been published, with excellent timing for anyone who wants to know more about the story of LIGO and its first observation of gravitational waves. The main strength of the book derives from her interviews with some of the people crucial to building LIGO (in particular Kip Thorne and Rainer Weiss). Together with research and other interviews she has put together a rich version of the history of the project and the roles of the three physicists (Drever, Thorne and Weiss) whose vision and dedication made it successful. LIGO has been a very long term project, with its beginnings going back 40 years. It’s remarkable that it didn’t get abandoned or defunded at some point, with the NSF playing a very important role in supporting the project over many years.

Drever, Thorne and Weiss will likely soon be the recipients of all sorts of well-deserved honors and prizes (I’d bet on this year’s Breakthrough Prize and probably the Nobel too). I was sad to learn that this is coming too late for one of them, Ronald Drever, who is ill and suffering from dementia. The physics of LIGO has a bright future, it’s great to have the story told of the people who made it happen.

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8 Responses to Two Book Reviews

  1. Richard Séguin says:

    Janna Levin was on Wisconsin Public Radio today for an hour. Podcast available here:

    I have a copy of A Doubter’s Almanac, but found that the smell of the ink or paper made me sneeze, so I’m not sure when I’ll get to it. I’ve never had that problem before.

  2. Richard Gaylord says:

    just wanted to note that Levin’s book was not published ‘with excellent timing’ by happenstance but rather because the publisher decided to rush the book into print now rather than at its previously announced Summer or Fall (i forget which) publication date after the detection of gravitational waves was announced. a very good (and an unexpectedly intelligent one, based on my dealings with publishers on four scientific programming books) move by the publisher. also, i recommend Levin’s first book which is a nice little scientific memoir but i found her second book, a novel, dealing with Turing and Godel to be unreadable.

  3. tulpoeid says:

    Just for the record, have you read “Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture”? Not tremendously well written, but quite amazing in talking about “the way talent and immersion in a mathematical problem may alienate one from the rest of the humanity” and in engaging “with some aspects of mathematics and the mathematical life”.

  4. Dragster says:

    I heard Ethan Canin at a book reading. It turns out he has no real background in math or mathematicians at all. After completing the original draft of the book he happened across a local topologist who gave him the math jargon and sociological insights, and he went back and wove these into his text. It then took multiple drafts to get it to sound authentic enough, but not so technically intimidating that the publisher would fear frightening away the general public.

  5. Scott Church says:

    The LIGO story has a personal connection for me. My thesis adviser left the University of Washington in 1988 to accept a position with LIGO at Caltech. The last thing he did before leaving was oversee my defense. After handshakes and well-wishes, he hopped in the car with his family and headed off to Pasadena. Today he is the director of LIGO Hanford and his name might appear in Levin’s book. 🙂

  6. Sebastian Thaler says:

    Thanks for these reviews, Peter. I hope we can look forward to a review from you later this year of Roger Penrose’s new book, “Fashion, Faith and Fantasy…”, which offers a critique of string theory among other areas of science.

  7. Shantanu says:

    Peter, was sufficient credit also given to Russell Hulse and Joe Taylor in this book
    for their discovery of H-T binary pulsar and subsequent observations? After all, its the decay of the orbit of PSR1913B+16 over more than a 20 year period which convinced skeptics that GWs carry away energy and also helped buttress the case for funding of LIGO. After the LIGO announcement, I was surprised to see not even a single interview of Joe Taylor or Russell Hulse.

  8. Peter Woit says:

    There are a couple pages in the book about Hulse/Taylor and the binary pulsar story.

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