The Birth of Structuralism

The Spectator, July 7, 2007 | Go to article overview

The Birth of Structuralism


THE ARTIST AND THE MATHEMATICIAN by Amir D. Aczel

High Stakes Publishing, £9.99, pp. 239, ISBN 9781843440345 £7.99 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Of all the sciences and pseudosciences that clamour for our attention, none is a tougher sell than pure mathematics. The British have never been noticeably keen on abstraction, but there's something about algebra, analysis and, indeed, topological vector spaces that sends even the calmest and cleverest of us reaching for the gin. I think this is because each of us, bar the truly gifted, reaches a point with maths when we simply don't get it. It may be the seven times table, it may be differential equations or differential calculus, and for me it was classical mechanics in my first year at university, but there it goes -- whoosh! -- straight over your head. After that lie only incomprehension and frustration, or in my case a Third.

We should therefore salute brave souls like Amir D. Aczel who write popular maths books for a living. Aczel, who has a BA and an MSc from Berkeley and a PhD from the University of Oregon, has so far given us The Mystery of the Aleph: Mathematics, the Kabbalah, and the Search for Infinity and several other books with even longer titles.

This one is subtitled 'The Story of Nicolas Bourbaki, the Genius Mathematician Who Never Existed', and begins with profiles of a number of mathematicians, most of them French, several of them Jewish and struggling to stay alive during the second world war. Alexandre Grothendieck was 'widely viewed as the most visionary mathematician of the 20th century'; André Weil was very nearly executed by the Finnish as a Russian spy; Laurent Schwartz, by subtly altering his handwriting, became Laurent Selmartin when the Nazis came to call. Most of these early chapters end with a 'But just who was Nicolas Bourbaki?' teaser, slightly annoyingly, as we already know from the cover that he wasn't anybody at all.

At this stage in my reading, I have to confess, I began to worry that this was all a giant hoax. Was Bourbaki a joke being foisted on the innocent reader or, far worse, on the innocent critic, who might review the book in all seriousness and then look a fool? Did André Weil really visit an island called Lökö off the coast of Finland? Might Amir D.

Aczel be an anagram of something fantastically rude? …

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