Deep Down, You Really Do Love Math, Don’t You?
by Weston Cutter
I’ll admit right at the outset that I’m made anxious by nonfiction accounts of the past in which dialogue is used, in which the principals’s heads are encroached upon and their thoughts limned and detailed. I’ll admit that this stance is largely the result of contemporary forces and fracas which have made nonfiction hard-ish to read (I’ve been reading D. Shields’s Reality Hunger; I’d’ve said this stuff anyway, but that slim and sledgehammering book makes it hard not to put this sort of beef up on the block just asap). And so I’ll admit that, though I was like nine types of thrilled to read Louisa Gilder’s The Age of Entanglement, I also got nervous very quickly, once I realized she’d be doing the I’m-gonna-write-from-within-Einstein’s-head-even-though-I’m-not-100%-sure-I’m-right.
Some sidenotes: If you’re into reading but you’re not into science/physics/bio/chem, shame on you. We might be living in the richest moment in terms of books regarding hard science decoded and made presentable to neither academicians nor amateurs—think of the book under review, think of 101 Theory Drive, think Einstein’s Telescope, think Why Us? That’s off the top of my head and that’s within the last 12 months. Plus there’s just the crazily fascinating fact of physics/science/etc: how can one not be made endlessly curious by a topic (quantum physics, for Gilder) about which it has been said “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics”? FEYNMAN said it! Dude won a Nobel!
Back to Gilder: I was totally, totally wrong. Not only is The Age of Entanglement a totally satisfying read, it’s also one of the smartest science books I’ve read in a long-ish time, smart in a way that’s surprising at a number of levels. First, Gilder does not coddle: she’s lifting some massive weights in her telling of all the 20th century and the radical restructuring of physics, and she doesn’t for a second make it easy. Second, one would think, with daily evermore plangent noises being made about the future of publishing, that publishers might be mostly interested in the most saccharine glob that’ll slide easily down the collective gullet of us few remaining readers…but then The Age of Entanglement shows up and makes one have to believe.
And the characters! That brazen act Gilder commits right at the start, sneaking her way into the heads of those physicists—the act is vital and great and allows the reader into the fullness of a story that continues to confound (it’s hard to do justice to how ballsy and good a decision it was for Gilder to get into the heads of long-dead physicists, because describing why it’s such a good move necessitates acknowledging how sticky and dicey quantum physics is, and how much is dependent on unique and down-to-the-second views of things…it’s literally impossible to get at this. Forget the attempt; read the book). Outside parenthesis, too: read the book.
I own an old-ish book called, I think, Mathematical Mountaintops, and here, I just went and found it: it’s by John Casti and its subtitle is The Five Most Famous Problems of All Time, and I have no shame in admitting its a book I’ve spent a mess of time getting lost within, all of which should just make it obvious that a book called The Great Equations is gonna tickle and soothe and satisfy the exact same itch/bone/whatever that Mathematical Mountaintops did (since MM came out, too, we’ve seen the Poincare Conjecture proven, which should be nothing more than proof that we need and will continually and always need new math books. Hell, Fermat’s Last Theorem didn’t get fully proven by Giles till the mid-90’s, right? There should be new math books at every moment.).
I was into Robert P. Crease’s The Great Equations the minute I spotted time’s most beautiful equation on the cover—e^iπ+1=0. I know Pythagora’s theorem’s hot, I know Heisenberg’s numbers astound, but I’ll always be a sucker for e to the i pi (I’ve been told by a quite good mathematician/physicist that that equation is, actually, pretty obvious and self-evident, but who gives a crap? The Beatles early songs are, musically, pretty obvious and self-evident, too, but I still listen to those).
Also, while the book, like the best math porn, offers the straight numbers and letters for those of us so inclined to take heart and glean thrills from such things, Crease is out to bag a different beast here: dude’s helping to acknowledge and prove how equations help craft the narrative of humanity. Seem a stretch? Google how the development of calculus (a recent mathematical development, roughly) allowed new rules in architecture, or how the movement of electrons allowed, well, the computer that I’m writing this on, and that you’re (likely) reading this one, and etc. etc. etc.
It’s a dazzler of a book.