“Over the years, people have asked me, ‘You were a math major—what was that about?” said Austin writer Karen Olsson after I asked her essentially that very question. A novelist with a Harvard math degree, Olsson is a rare breed, a unicorn who can appreciate the intricacies of sentence structure and storytelling while also understanding what in the world f’=2if is supposed to mean. She has often found it difficult to articulate how someone can be a nerd for both numbers and words. Her newest book, The Weil Conjectures: On Math and the Pursuit of the Unknown (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), is what she describes as a “very indirect answer” to that problem.
This is Olsson’s third book, following two novels (one of which, Waterloo, is set in a thinly veiled Austin) and several years on staff at Texas Monthly, where she remains a contributing editor. Part memoir, part history book, part ode to abstract algebra, The Weil Conjectures is a loose, lyrical biography of genius siblings André and Simone Weil mixed with Olsson’s personal experiences with college-level math. The Weils were superstars of twentieth century thought—Simone through her extensive writings on philosophy, mysticism, and politics, and André through “the Weil conjectures,” a set of mathematical proposals most of us can’t even begin to understand. Thankfully, Olsson does not require such comprehension of her reader. She is less concerned with the specifics of the Weils’ work than she is with what compelled them to pursue it. The Weil Conjectures is much more about the drive to seek a solution than it is the calculations that may lead one there.
“I wanted to write a book about math for the kind of person who would never read a book about math,” Olsson said. As a card-carrying member of her target demographic, I can attest to her success on this matter. There is some math in the book—big-league stuff that only made me more confused the more I reread Olsson’s patient descriptions of it. The kind of math with ancient symbols and letters where the numbers are supposed to be. Yet, as I made my way through the Weil Conjectures, learning not just about André, Simone, and Olsson, but also the ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagorus, the seventh century mathematician Brahmagupta, and other figures in the history of mathematical discovery, I found my math-phobic self wishing, to my surprise, that I were more of a numbers person.
The lofty, romantic way Olsson writes about her subjects appeals to my lofty, romantic writer-self. She describes advanced, André Weil-level math as “a cloud land of abstract structures, curves and surfaces and fields and vector spaces, accessible only to those who learn the elaborate cloud language,” and her own experiences in college as “messing around on the lower rungs of a tall ladder” that lead to it. That sort of self-deprecation reassures readers—at least those of us who ran as fast and far away as we could from math the moment our core undergraduate requirements were met—that understanding this material is of secondary importance. That there’s great virtue in simple trying.
And try I did, as I was reading the book and then during my interview with Olsson. I asked her to explain a comparatively uncomplicated function, f (x) = x, and then stared dead-eyed as she calmly drew graphs in my reporter’s notebook. This was perhaps a foolish task, given that I can’t grasp the meaning of the word “function” beyond its definition as a social event I would rather not attend. In Olsson’s drawings, the function was a straight line, though she noted, “a function could be any line, really.” What? What?!
But I wasn’t as mortified by my limitations as I might otherwise have been because Olsson, in The Weil Conjectures, is frank about the limits of her own intellect. She writes about how, as a woman in her forties researching a book about math, she started taking an online college algebra class and struggled to relearn the abstract principles she had a handle on twenty years earlier. She admits she can only follow the work of the Weil siblings so far, “reading their words and making guesses as to what lay beyond articulation.” She doesn’t even really try to nail down André’s conjectures.
Then there’s Simone, who grew up in the shadow of a prodigious older brother. “She had that whole crisis when she was an adolescent where she felt, ‘Oh, I’m worthless because I can’t do that. I’m not that kind of genius,’” Olsson said. This hang-up likely wasn’t helped by André’s occasional reminders that Simone could never understand his work, though he’d try to explain it anyway. But that didn’t slow her down. Simone “just reoriented herself,” devoting her thoughts to more earthly dilemmas like morality, labor, and the limitations of capitalism.
She wrote prolifically and left behind a body of work that Olsson describes as “awfully high in fiber.” Sometimes, writes Olsson, Simone’s “propositions have hardly any more meaning to me than the Pythagoreans’ Justice = 4, only without the whimsical concision of Justice = 4.” Ah, yes, many readers will think, how could any of us have forgotten the whimsical concision of Justice = 4?
There is a lot about The Weil Conjectures that I just don’t get, but the not-getting is kind of the point. Olsson likens the 150-page proofs of professional mathematicians to grasping in the dark, throwing ideas against a wall to see what works, until something leads to something that builds upon that something, and finally, if you’re lucky, you stumble upon a solution. This, she writes, “is the fundamental narrative of the creative process in any field.”
That is her indirect and partial explanation of why it wasn’t so far-fetched for her to be a math major. If, as Olsson writes, math is a “cloud land,” and to understand it she had to learn an “elaborate cloud language,” then we can think of f (x) = x and 150-page proofs as the mathematical equivalent of sentences and novels. André Weil formulating his conjectures and then slowly, painstakingly, writing and erasing and rewriting as he tried to find his way to an answer is kind of like Olsson sitting at her computer, trying to figure out how to herd a cast of characters toward an ending that’s true to the story she’s telling. Maybe writing was just another “tall ladder,” one she felt more confident about climbing.