Duel at Dawn

Speaking of Galois, my review of Amir Alexander’s Duel at Dawn is up at BN Review today.  The book draws an interesting connection between the Romantic literary area and the invention of the “romantic” mathematical hero, of whom Galois is obviously the sterling example.  But Alexander commendably reaches past the endlessly-repeated Galois story to cover a lot of material less familiar to readers of pop math; I learned a lot about Abel, Bolyai, D’Alembert, and Cauchy (who was constantly getting rebuked by his deans for teaching epsilons and deltas in first-year calculus!)

The uncollected and very worthwhile David Foster Wallace essay “Rhetoric and the Math Melodrama,” which I mention towards the end of the piece, can be found in .pdf here.

Also, writing this review gave me the opportunity to use the word “emo” in print for the first time.  I hope my younger readers will let me know whether my usage is roughly correct.

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11 thoughts on “Duel at Dawn

  1. Not Emo says:

    _The romantic view of the self—”nobody understands me, I’m made of higher stuff than the mundanes I have to live among”—belongs, these days, to teenagers. And mathematics is no longer a teenager’s game. It’s too deep, the path to the frontier of research too long. We will likely never again encounter a figure like Galois, who can redirect an entire field of math while still young and emo enough to write, “I am disenchanted with all, even the love of glory. How can a world that I detest soil me?” The production of romantic mathematical heroes requires mathematicians who believe their own romantic hype, and that’s not easy for a grown-up to do._

    Well, probably Perelman, Grothendieck, W.J. Sidis and others like them are just teenagers or emo kids.

  2. Estie Stoll says:

    Your book sounds very interesting — I intend to read it. In the meantime, you might be interested in this bit of trivia tangentially related to Evariste Galois — In the late 1960s, French physicist Joel Sternheimer had a brief successful popular music career in France under the name “Evariste” — which name he chose as an homage to Evariste Galois. When his first hit record came out in France, Joel/Evariste (whose doctorate in mathhematics/physics had been dedicated to the Beatles), was doing postgraduate work under a Nobel prize-winning physicist at Princeton. Don’t know what Joel is doing now, but he was a very gentle eccentric of extraordinary intelligence and great promise as a physicist.

  3. Charlie says:

    I’m twenty-two and found your use of the word “emo” jarring. It should not, in my opinion as an editorial assistant, my professional view, if you will, be deployed in serious writing, into which genre your piece falls. Maybe I don’t quality as ‘young’, however, in which case, please pretend I never wrote this.

    By the way, great article.

  4. harrison says:

    I’m twenty, so at least have a better claim on “young,” and there did seem to be something not quite right about the usage — but I think it’s close enough to correct that I’d be inclined to let it slide.

  5. ozanam says:

    Hey Jordan I really enjoyed your review. very enlightening. By the way did you know that if you google your name, a wikipedia article appears about you in the first few links? It says you were a child prodigy of sorts, what gives ?

  6. Kevin Lin says:

    “The production of romantic mathematical heroes requires mathematicians who believe their own romantic hype, and that’s not easy for a grown-up to do.”

    How about Grothendieck?

  7. Kevin Lin says:

    Oh, and I think the usage of “emo” is fine, and accurate. (I’m 25.)

  8. JSE says:

    Grothendieck did a lot of things that aren’t easy to do!

  9. Sam says:

    Thanks for linking to the DFW essay; it is excellent. Also I found your usage of “emo” perfectly acceptable.

    To change the subject somewhat, is it just me, or is it weird that Wallace described _Cryptonomicon_ as literary rather than genre fiction (cf. footnote 8 of the linked pdf)? Actually, I usually think making such distinctions is kind of stupid, and I really love Neal Stephenson’s books. But man, DFW must have been pretty enamoured of _Cryptonomicon_ to describe it as “belle lettres, literature” and to place Stephenson in the ranks of DeLillo and Pynchon, not to mention G.H. Hardy! I don’t know much about what it’s like to be a novelist, but my current perception of Stephenson (based on things like seeing _Anathem_ high up on the NYT bestsellers list) is that he’s a fairly successful, mass-market guy, who writes weird books but is pretty sure to sell them to his millions of rabid fans. DFW was writing in 2000, at which time I was 13 and thought _Snow Crash_ was awesome, but perhaps back then Stephenson’s sales figures were still small enough to qualify as literary in scale?

  10. JSE says:

    Good catch. Haven’t read Cryptonomicon but Snow Crash certainly seemed to me to declare itself as “genre,” not “belles lettres.”

  11. I was also really surprised that DFW called Cryptonomicon literature. I guess unlike the futuristic Snow Crash, it’s set partially in the WWII era (including historical figures like Turing, etc.) and partially set in the present day. (One might argue that it’s some other genre fiction, like historical fiction.) But mostly I’m surprised because I thought Cryptonomicon was pretty bad (though I must admit I didn’t get through it); Snow Crash, or even Stephenson’s Zodiac, is a much better novel. Cryptonomicon is pretty discursive with lots of exposition and tangents, which might appeal to DFW for some reason…

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