The mathematician André Weil was arrested by the Finnish police in 1939. He had overstayed his vacation in Helsinki while there was a war on, and the police thought he was a spy. The papers in his room didn’t help his case—some of them were letters full of strange notations. Code, perhaps? No, he insisted: It was just math, and his correspondents were other mathematicians. He tried to explain his research to the officers detaining him, but the problem was that—as he would later write to his sister, Simone—“telling non-specialists of my research or of any other mathematical research, it seems to me, is like explaining a symphony to a deaf person.” He was detained, deported from Finland, then imprisoned in France.
The unlucky André Weil is the hero of Karen Olsson’s book, even though she can’t hear his symphony either. “I didn’t go far enough in math,” she writes, “to really understand the Weil conjectures.” (The Weil conjectures are the most famous results of André’s research.) Olsson studied math at Harvard, then abandoned it for writing. Despite loving math’s moments of insight and the strange characters who people its history, she knew she wasn’t good enough to make a career of it. “How little, really, I learned in college,” she muses, “less and less every semester, since whenever I studied one thing, all sorts of further potential studies would reveal themselves, so that instead of making progress I only walked a short way up a sand dune that continually grew larger as I went along.”
Decades later, having become a novelist and a mother, with a son just learning about numbers, Olsson remembers the rarefied pleasures of abstract contemplation with longing and regret. This book is about unrequited love, love for a discipline that remains intractable even as its beauty beckons: “What I wish for now is less the specific math knowledge than a certain constellation of feelings that came with it.”
Olsson explores her theme in a mosaic of anecdotes. In short sections, most only a few paragraphs long, she weaves together memories of her own study, scenes from the lives of André and Simone Weil, and bits and pieces from the history of mathematics. One implication of these juxtapositions is that her own sense of inadequacy toward math is analogous to Simone Weil’s feelings toward her math-genius brother. Olsson loads a lot of angst onto the siblings’ relationship. This choice is the flaw in an otherwise good book, and it is a serious flaw, because it leads Olsson to present a grotesque and caricatured version of Simone Weil.