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On Math and the Pursuit of the Unknown

by Karen Olsson

Pub Date: July 16th, 2019
ISBN: 978-0-374-28761-0
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

An odd but appealing combination of memoir and biography of two significant French sibling intellectuals, André Weil (1906-1998) and Simone Weil (1909-1943).

Novelist and former Texas Observer editor Olsson (All the Houses, 2015, etc.) admits that her life, viewed on its own, might not suffice for a memoir. Seemingly marked for a career in the humanities, she entered Harvard and was drawn to the concrete, right-or-wrong nature of mathematics. At that time in life, she notes, “so much is up in the air, open to question, unreliable. I think part of what I liked about math, she writes, “was simply that it seemed like a sure thing, as sure as a thing could be, a solid mass of true and rigorous and irreproachable knowledge that I could grab like a pole on a bus.” The author held her own and graduated but chose to pursue a career in journalism while never losing her fascination with creativity, the epitome of which is the abstract purity of mathematics. Stirred by reading the Weil memoirs, letters between the two, and a series of internet lectures by a Harvard mathematics professor, Olsson delivers a mixture of philosophy with an account of their lives and her own. Simone was an activist, philosopher, and later mystic, little known during her short life but immensely influential to the postwar generation. Her intense sympathy for the oppressed was accompanied by an obsession with sharing their suffering (working at miserable jobs; semistarvation), ineffectual, often self-destructive efforts to help, and much introspection. She was close to her brother, a brilliant mathematician who often responded to her appeals to explain his work. The responses were no more comprehensible to Olsson than Simone, but they encouraged her to muse about the nature of creativity and write this unique meditation.

An occasionally rambling but effective dual biography.