An exploration of the relationship between the philosopher and activist Simone Weil and her brilliant mathematician brother, André, told through the lens of the author's reminiscences of her early fascination with math.
...alluring ... the philosophy, math, psychology, history, esoterica, and tantalizing impressions...is artfully offered up in the service of an original and revealing portrayal of a famous mathematician (André Weil, 1906-1998) and his even more famous philosopher-activist sister (Simone Weil, 1909-1943) ... Yes, it can get dizzying at times. Perhaps that’s Olsson’s larger point. Even so, in her exquisitely written narrative, she does a thought-provoking job of juxtaposing the life and logic of the brother, André (the 'last universal mathematician'), and the sister, Simone (the 'quasi-canonized' genius) ... In her conjectural, juxtapositional, and occasional dreamlike zigzags down the corridors of the inner lives of André and Simone Weil, Karen Olsson entices her more attentive readers to join in the joy of thinking, albeit with creative abandon in search of those hidden proofs that linger just beyond the next subway stop of our imaginations.
...mathematics, fiction, speculation, brilliance, biography, hardship, mockery, intimidation, solidarity, generosity, and moral and theoretical imagination — run throughout the book, making it one of the most insightful meditations on modern mathematics I have ever read. With startling originality, Olsson confronts the problem of knowing mathematics from the outside. In the process, she vividly portrays the human dimensions of mathematical creativity ... This book is not a fable, but it pithily prods the moral dimensions of legends. Nor is it a biography or memoir, though it probes the Weils’ lives and the author’s own, weaving them into an account of what it means to grapple with mathematics. It is not history, but it mines the past for evocative stories ... Olsson ultimately makes the case for conjecture as its own literary genre ... Olsson’s conjecturing is so effective in part because she reckons so frankly with what it means to comprehend mathematics as a nonmathematician, an endeavor she finds by turns thrilling and fascinating, frustrating and alienating ... More than just about any mathematician in the 20th century, Weil stood for the power of mathematicians to make their own worlds, to insist that others join them there, and to pursue those worlds until they harmonized with our own. This kind of radical imagination, Olsson shows, is not just mathematical but also moral, and it offers a key to the intellectual history of the 20th century.
Karen Olsson paints vivid portraits of both siblings ... she invites the reader to sit with the Weils, to appreciate their relationship and ponder what their lives and work say to contemporary writers and mathematicians. The book is not a biography of either Weil or a detailed look at any of André’s math, which was what I was expecting to some degree based on the title. It is more impressionistic than that, with Olsson weaving other historical vignettes and her own relationship to math and writing in with the story of the Weils ... The book feels deliberately fragmentary ... The quick changes can cause a little bit of whiplash and could probably have been deployed a bit more sparingly. On the other hand, some of her insights about the process of writing or mathematics are sharper for having been juxtaposed so closely with relevant parts of the Weils’ story.