Saturday, July 10, 2021

Review of "The Weil Conjectures: On Math and the Pursuit of the Unknown," by Karen Olsson

 Review of

The Weil Conjectures: On Math and the Pursuit of the Unknown, by Karen Olsson ISBN 9781250619570

Five out of five stars

Three-way look at issues

 As a mathematician, I was familiar with the work of Andre Weil. He was a founder and early leader of the Bourbaki group, mathematicians that worked together and published under the name Nicolas Bourbaki. Weil also developed many significant results on his own, some of his conjectures, statements of belief that were at that time unproven, led others to make significant advancements in mathematics. Hence, the origin of the title.

 Weil also had a brilliant sister named Simone, she was a first-rate philosopher known for her approaches often based on mysticism. She was also a very left-wing political radical, promoting Marxism and even joining the forces of the Spanish Republic during the Civil War. While she used a gun, her eyesight was so poor that her fellow soldiers did not let her participate. Very early in the thirties, she concluded that the fascists would rise to power in Germany. The author is a novelist that graduated from Harvard University with a degree in mathematics.

 The book takes a disjointed three-track approach to explaining the lives and achievements of three people, Andre and Simone Weil as well as herself. Structurally, there is a segment on one person, shifting to a segment about another and then to the third. The only real connections are the sibling relationship between the Weils as well as when the author studied their work.

 Despite this seeming convolution, Olsson pulls off an excellent rendition of a popular work on mathematics. The reader learns many things about Simone, a dynamic woman of strong opinions that did not hesitate to express them forcefully. She is said to be one of the few people that was ever able to hold their own in a debate with Leon Trotsky.

 This is a great book, there is some mathematics, but the real topic is how three people worked their way through complicated issues in their pursuit of personal and professional goals.

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