Mathematicians, a coffee table book from Princeton University Press

Just got in the mail a coffee-table book from PUP, which will appeal to you if you like looking at big photographic portraits of mathematicians while you drink your coffee.  I do!  The pictures, by Mariana Cook, are agreeable, but what really sells the book for me are the short essays that accompany the photos.

At least two of these would make good openings for novels. Pictured here,  Ed Nelson:

I had the great good fortune to be the youngest of four sons with a seven-year gap between my brothers and me, born into a warm and loving family.  This was in Georgia, in the depths of the Depression, where my father organized interracial conferences.  He was the sixth Methodist minister in lineal descent.  While driving he would amuse himself by mentally representing the license plate numbers of cars as the sum of four squares.

And Kate Okikiolu:

My mother is British, from a family with a trade-union background and a central interest in class struggle; she met my father, who is Nigerian, while both were students of mathematics in London.  My father was a very talented mathematician, and after my parents married, he went on to a position in the mathematics department of the University of East Anglia.  While I was growing up, the elementary school I attended was extremely ethnically homogeneous.  I was unable to escape from heavy issues concerning race, which my mother always explained in a political context.  My parents separated after my father resigned his university position to focus on his inventions, and my mother then finished her education and became a school mathematics teacher.

Less novelistic but very keenly observed is this, from the Vicomte Deligne, on the role of intuition in geometry:

You have more than one picture for each mathematical object.  Each of them is wrong but we know how each is wrong.  That helps us determine what should be true.

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One thought on “Mathematicians, a coffee table book from Princeton University Press

  1. Richard says:

    I’m tempted to order this myself. Are all of the photographs of the same fine quality as the cover? Have you ever noticed that skillfully made B&W (grey scale) portraits of people have more impact and drama than portraits done in color?

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