The life of the mind

The life of the mind

Review: The Weil Conjectures – On Maths and the Pursuit of the Unknown

‘Where are numbers?’ Karen Olsson asks her equally maths-obsessed son. Her book takes its title from a theory developed by mathematician Andre Weil that, as I understand it, is a way of linking algebra to space, or of linking numbers to reality, if you like. But her book is nothing like a dusty textbook. Rather, it’s about the extraordinary lives of Andre and his Christian philosopher sister Simone, and has all the immediacy, provocation and collage character of a postmodern novel. Furthermore, in it, Olsson writes about how history intersects with the life of the mind and how mathematicians feel their way towards mathematical theories. Though Olsson concentrates on the maths side, there are parallels to the way Simone sought to put the spiritual into practice, the way thought and belief and practice interact.  

Andre and Simone were not what you might think of as normal children. They competed in spouting Greek literature to each other, and their parents worried about Andre’s obsession with algebra. Olsson describes them as ‘churning brains appended to small, floppy bodies’. Simone is drawn to extremes. She tries to keep up with her older brother and when she thinks she might not be a genius, she feels suicidal. She wants understanding at any cost and has an almost pathological need to empathise with suffering. She will eventually die in London from empathetically restricting her diet to what she thinks children in war-torn France are rationed. Many think she is simply mad. Olsson calls her a ‘paragon of seeking’.

Andre is entranced by maths, makes a career out of it, Simone has a mystical experience which she describes as being enslaved by Christ. She is sceptical of the church, though, as she is of politics. She famously studies, and writes, philosophy, but also has a drive for workers’ rights. She begs wide-eyed factory owners to give her the worst jobs, she signs up for the Spanish Civil War, she has a madcap idea to have nurses parachuted directly into the front line of the war.

After working in India, Andre returns to Europe during the war but is locked up as a suspected spy because of all the cryptic maths papers he carries, which look like code. Through letters Simone pesters her jailed brother to explain his work to her. She believes maths encourages an orderly mind, and she wants to understand, but also feels that maths should be relevant, practical, explainable. In the same way that her spiritual life must manifest itself in practical, and for her, fanatically self-sacrificial, ways. She has that medieval drive of emptying herself.

Olsson writes of the use of analogies in mathematics, and of the art of conjecturing. I am struck by the similarity to theology. Speaking of God requires analogies, theologians must prod and probe and fumble their way through to understanding. One mathematician suggests that often he knows an answer to a problem but the work is all in joining up the dots. This is kind of like the way Christian life moves towards the knowledge of God with hesitant and uncertain steps, joining the dots through relationships with other people. One does so through, as Simone did in extremis, giving to other people, making connections, building relationships in sometimes tentative, awkward and not always successful ways, making wrong turns but pushing forward.

Nick Mattiske blogs on books at coburgreviewofbooks.wordpress.com

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