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On Math and the Pursuit of the Unknown


The Bookforum website has an excerpt from an unusual and fascinating new book: The Weil Conjectures: On Math and the Pursuit of the Unknown by Karen Olsson. The book interweaves the author’s obsession with mathematics, which she studied in college before becoming a writer, with the story of two brilliant French siblings, Simone and André Weil. Simone was a philosopher and activist, which André was a mathematician with a mysitcal streak. As Olsson writes in the excerpt, the Weil siblings viewed math as a realm of instense creativity and spiritual insight, rather than an austere and staid discipline. Check out a snippet of the excerpt below.

My math fever dream lasted for two and a half years, which were spent messing around on the lower rungs of a tall ladder that stretched into the clouds, that led to a cloud land of tantalizing abstract structures, curves and surfaces and fields and vector spaces, accessible only to those who learn the elaborate cloud language, a vehicle for truths that cannot be expressed in any other tongue.

Then I stepped off the ladder and walked away. It’s not often that I experience even a passing wish to go back, and even in those moments the allure of math is much fainter than it was in college, since now I have no illusions that I would ever make it very far up—I’m left to imagine that land, and what I wish for now is less the specific math knowledge than a certain constellation of feelings that came with it.

Image via Bookforum.