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Birth of a Theorem

Cédric Villani
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
BLL Rating: 

The Basic Library List Committee suggests that undergraduate mathematics libraries consider this book for acquisition.

[Reviewed by
Charles Ashbacher
, on

Mathematics and science as they appear in formal publications looks clean, neat, and the consequence of a logically directed path from the point of first interest to the realization that “all is done.” That is not the case, of course. Some people in these fields have written honest accounts of their actual work process. Cédric Villani does that in this book.

Villani is honest in describing the collaborative work with Clément Mouhot that led to his receiving a Fields medal in 2010. The path is one with many frustrations and failures, false starts, and points where complete abandonment is considered a reasonable option. The actual path resembles a slightly directed drunkard’s walk far more than it does a logical progression.

The recapitulation of Villani’s actions should serve to inspire rather than depress, for it demonstrates that even people with work good enough to get a Fields medal experience points of great despair and fear of failure. It can be argued that both are in fact necessary for the creation of high quality work.

The book can be read by people that do not have the slightest understanding of the mathematics, some of which is included in the book but not really meant to be understood. For this is a human interest story about perseverance, with a bit of mathematical history included, more than it is about mathematics.

See also our review of Théorème Vivant in the original French.

Charles Ashbacher splits his time between consulting with industry in projects involving math and computers, and teaching college classes. In his spare time, he reads about these things and helps his daughter in her lawn care business.

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