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Birth of a Theorem Paperback – May 17, 2016
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Winner of the French-American Foundation Translation Prize in Nonfiction
“Riveting! A gem.” ―Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan
“Villani has written probably the most unlikely unputdownable thriller of the decade.” ―Richard Morrison,The Times
“Combining poetry, music, and formidable sleuthing, the charismatic Cédric Villani skilfully unfolds the complex yet wondrous world of mathematics. Birth of a Theorem inspires and entertains!” ―Patti Smith
“[Birth of a Theorem] is less about math than about mathematicians―how they live, how they work, and how they talk to one another.” ―Thomas Lin, The New Yorker
“Birth of a Theorem is a remarkable book and I urge everyone to buy it.” ―Alexander Masters, The Spectator
“A fine book from a brilliant man.” ―Ron Liddle, Sunday Times
“[Villani] is widely regarded as one of the most talented mathematicians of his generation . . . Ultimately, this is a story about the limits of what can be achieved. And in that respect it has everything: partnership, courage, doubt and anxiety, elation and despair. Villani’s path to success was not always easy, and he writes vividly of his setbacks and obstacles, detailing the inner monologue of self-doubt that we all experience, regardless of our ability.” ―Hannah Fry, The Guardian
“Birth of a Theorem succeeds in giving us a glimpse . . . of what it feels like to be Cédric Villani.” ―Evelyn Lamb, Scientific American Blog Network
“[Provides] a view of the math community not often seen by the general public . . . Villani's book eloquently humanizes mathematicians and is inexplicably fascinating even for the layperson.” ―Publishers Weekly
“Cédric Villani's Birth of a Theorem is like no other book about math: an unfiltered view into the daily life, and the soul, of a great mathematician, as he approaches and finally conquers a major result.” ―Jordan Ellenberg, author of How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking
“[Villani] could plainly do for mathematics what Brian Cox has done for physics . . . [Birth of a Theorem] is one of the most peculiar and entertaining science books you will ever read . . . He realises that what seems too obvious to him-the beauty of maths-is baffling to almost everybody else, and he wants to break down the barrier this creates, not by condescendingly trying to be normal, but by being Cédric Villani. As maths is, as I say, the language that can make or break us, this is an urgent task that only Villani and only this book are addressing.” ―Bryan Appleyard, Sunday Times
“Villani’s flair for storytelling, drawing on fables, metaphors and anecdotes, ensures that [Birth of a Theorem] is never boring.” ―Stephen Muirhead, Chalkdust
“Birth of a Theorem should not be read as a book about mathematics or a mathematician. It is a book about life and a man whose zest for life is insatiable. Read it if you enjoy knowing that when approached in the right spirit by someone of sufficient energy and talent, life can be beautiful.” ―Daniel W. Stroock, Notices of the American Mathematical Society
“Compellingly readable . . . I am not aware of any other account that so lucidly describes the desolation felt by mathematicians when a solution simply refuses to be found . . . But as Birth of a Theorem shows, the exhilaration when a breakthrough occurs is beyond compare.” ―Noel-Ann Bradshaw, Times Higher Education
“A refreshing alternative to most pop-maths books . . . Villani pours you inside his mind and swirls you around, leaving you with nothing to hold on to and breathlessly wondering what you'll encounter next.” ―Jacob Aron, New Scientist
About the Author
- Publisher : FSG Adult; Reprint edition (May 17, 2016)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 272 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0374536678
- ISBN-13 : 978-0374536671
- Item Weight : 6.4 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.45 x 0.68 x 7.87 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #312,543 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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This is a gem for a singular reason. One sees exactly how Villani (or a pure mathematician) goes from abstract to abstract without ever exiting the world of pure and symbolic mathematics, even though the subject concerns a very concrete real-world topic. I kept waiting for him to use simulations or even plots to see how the equations worked. But he did not ... he and Mouhot had recourse to outside help (a student or an assistant) for the graphs and he camly noted that they "looked" great. Later in the book he relied on others to do the numerical work... as an afterthought. Most physicists, quants, and applied mathematicians would have played with a computer to get the intuition; Villani just worked with mathematical objects, abstract mathematical objects, and very abstract at that. And this is a big deal for the subject because it belongs to a certain class of problems that do not have analytic solutions, usually requiring numerical approaches.
Landau damping is about something many people are indirectly familiar with. Some history: Fokker–Planck equation, itself the Kolmogorov forward equation, is used commonly as the law of motion of particles (hence diffusions in finance). We quants use it in the main partial stochastic differential equation. In plasma physics it is related to the Boltzman equation, which, by using mean-interraction in place of every interration (mean-field), leads to the Vlasov equation. Landau damping is (sort of) about how things don't blow up because of some exponential decay. Proving it outside the linear version remained elusive. Villani and Mouhot set to prove it. They eventually do.
One note. I read it in the English translation (because I was in a hurry to get the book), but noticed an oddity that may confuse the reader. "Calcul" in French does not mean "calculation" (in the sense of numerical calculation) but "derivation", so the reader might be confused about calculations thinking they were numerical when Villani stayed at the abstract/symbolic level.
I would have read the book in one sitting. It grips you like a detective novel.
PS- Some UK BS operator, the type of journalist with an attempt at some PhD in something related to physics who thinks he knows it all and is the representative of the general public trashed the book in the Spectator. Ignore him: the fellow is clueless. Look at reviews by PRACTICING quants and mathematicians. I do not think there is another book like this one.
Every chapter goes roughly like this: Villani is having trouble with [some unexplained jargon]. He [talks to someone] [has a brilliant new idea] [lies awake all night] [drinks some tea] and comes up with a solution involving [more explained jargon]. He sends an email to his collaborator. This description, sometimes delivered in breathless prose!, takes up a page or two. We then get 4-5 pages of email documentation. The emails are between Villani and his collaborator, and after trying to make my way through a few of them I'm just skipping them, because it's all incomprehensible. Not only is this shop talk about some incredibly difficult mathematics, but the TeX used to describe equations is rendered in plain text, not equation text, so it can't even be read without effort (and I know TeX!).
The good news is that because you can skip 75% of the book, it's a very quick read. But thank goodness. I love math; I have a degree in math; I have studied some of the subject under discussion in this book (in a very beginner way). And I absolutely hate this book.
There are too many unexplained equations which are basically like clippings from mathematical papers. Don't get me wrong. I like equations and mathematics and my math background isn't too weak but those equations and theories are not meant to be understood in the way it is listed out. I really want him either spending more time on explaining his work and make the book a bit thicker or just give keeping the ideas conceptual in words (which I think he can do it).
I think if you skip what you don't understand and what you feel boring, this is quite fun and smooth to read the journey of how he got the his theorem done.
Maybe the original French version would be better but I don't speak French.
Top reviews from other countries
However, it makes for a good story. One reason for this is that this work was done as a collaboration (unlike, for example, the famous proof of Fermat's Last Theorem, popularized in Simon Singh's book , which Andrew Wiles accomplished almost completely on his own), and contains a selection of their emailed correspondence so the reader can peep over their shoulders as they grapple with the proof. Once again however, this doesn't reveal very much, partly since the maths in the emails is written using TeX, a typesetting system for mathematics, and contains sentences like [p81]
"If \int_0^t a(s,t) ds=O(1), everything's fine."
which looks like gobbledygook to the uninitiated. But the book also contains interesting portraits of his colleagues and predecessors, and there's enough about the emotions of the quest to keep the reader interested, even if it's not clear what's going on (I have some experience with statistical physics, but didn't understand the relationship between his work on the Boltzmann equation and Landau damping, for example), and everyone can appreciate the joy he experiences when the work is complete and he's rewarded for his efforts.
Moments of revelation are an experience we all share.
The story was like an arrow throwing dust into its passage. A 150 page proof is beyond my understanding but I am very impressed by the concept.
Do read it - obsession is always interesting.
I did struggle with the actual mathematics in the book which I could not begin to grasp (which there was a lot). However, overlooking this, I found the journey interesting enough to continue reading.
A story of obsession and fascination. An insight into the life of a true mathematician.