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.