Villani is a charismatic character who, contrary to the popular image of a mathematician, owes much of his success to collaboration with colleagues. Birth of a Theorem sets out the work necessary to develop his ideas into a full proof, and work is definitely the correct word. He details late nights and long days, emails exchanged on Christmas day, and the frantic development of ideas for conference deadlines.
Villani’s trajectory through academia is impressive, as is to be expected from a Field’s medal winner, and the insight into how much was down to chance meetings and hard work is fantastic. This was also the book that has encouraged me to return to my dream of undertaking a PhD, although not in pure mathematics as I might have expected aged 18.
My only complaint is that my LATEX was never that great, and now is beyond rusty, and I would have expected all the equations in this popular maths book to be displayed in conventional notation, rather than having to do the mental work of converting the TEX script and then understanding the equations, in a field which I don’t have much knowledge of. Somewhere where the editor should maybe have stepped in. But the translation (from French) is very good.
I’m also back to thinking about the Collatz Conjecture again, although even less likely to find a route to a solution than I was a decade ago.
This is not the sort of book I expect to find in my local public library, but am very glad I stumbled across it there.
As a somewhat lapsed mathematician, I enjoy reading popular mathematics books. This series by Ian Stewart is a particular gem: a miscellany of mathematical facts connected by a parody of Sherlock Holmes.
The puzzles were all the right sort of difficulty for me to enjoy: I had to sit, think and occasionally doodle, but they were all solvable. However I remain sadly too aware of my limitations to think that I could possibly prove the ABC conjecture, or other unsolved issues that Stewart mentions as he brings modern mathematics into the mix.
If you are of a mathematical inclination, have a fondness for puzzle-solving and like Sherlock spin-offs, then this is a fun book with bits to learn.
After seeing Breaking the Code at the Manchester Royal Exchange, there were a few monologues that I wanted to read at leisure. Unfortunately the script was printed in 1987, so copies of it are hard to come by and expensive. Thankfully though, Lancashire Libraries have a good collection of published scripts, so I requested it and it came from the reserve stock (not on the shelf anywhere in the county).
This is of course a script, with light stage directions from the 1986 Guilford production. As a stand-alone read it isn’t much, but it just added that ability to reflect on specific sections of the play that I had enjoyed, such as this tiny segment of one of Turing’s monologues:
Hilbert took the whole thing a stage further. I don’t suppose his name means m-m-much to you – if anything – but there we are, that’s the way of the world; people never seem to hear much of the really great mathematicians. Hilbert looked at the problem from a completely different angle, and he said, if we are going to have any fundamental system for mathematics – like the one Russel was trying to work out – it must satisfy three basic requirements: consistency, completeness and decidability.
How often do concise explanations of the fundamentals of mathematics like this make their way into any cultural piece of work, much less a play that fills the house?
Regular readers may have noticed I’ve been on a bit of a theatre binge lately. This is mostly because going to the theatre triggers more theatre because I find out about other interesting things I need to see. But this Manchester Science Festival play was my first time in the Royal Opera House in about a decade: its a good place to go, a fully “in the round” (or heptogon/octogon) space where the action is surrounded by the audience.
Breaking the Code is of course quite light on actual code, and much heavier on Turing’s personal life and relationships. There are however a couple of lovely little maths monologues. I was most puzzled however by the line:
“You haven’t heard of Hilbert. Its a great shame”
Because to my mind, everyone knows of Hilbert’s Hotel. A wonderful place, although it is somewhat tiresome to always be moving rooms. But then probably we can’t assume the whole audience does!
However even knowing what was going to happen next, the ending is still somewhat out of the blue. The problem seems to be simply that there was too much material between mathematics, personal life and legal trouble to be fitted into a two hour play and therefore something had to give.
It was very well produced in the Royal Exchange: a simple system of horizontal and vertical light bars were moved up and down to form room outlines, with the only other set pieces used being a few chairs and a single table that were moved about to form different rooms. Gave a real sense to movement between scenes, even if poor Daniel Rigby (playing Alan Turing) hardly left the stage for the whole play.