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The Weil Conjectures

On Math and the Pursuit of the Unknown

Karen Olsson


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Other Editions of This Title:
Paperback (7/21/2020)


A New York Times Editors' Pick and Paris Review Staff Pick

"A wonderful book." --Patti Smith

"I was riveted. Olsson is evocative on curiosity as an appetite of the mind, on the pleasure of glutting oneself on knowledge." --Parul Sehgal, The New York Times

An eloquent blend of memoir and biography exploring the Weil siblings, math, and creative inspiration

Karen Olsson’s stirring and unusual third book, The Weil Conjectures, tells the story of the brilliant Weil siblings—Simone, a philosopher, mystic, and social activist, and André, an influential mathematician—while also recalling the years Olsson spent studying math. As she delves into the lives of these two singular French thinkers, she grapples with their intellectual obsessions and rekindles one of her own. For Olsson, as a math major in college and a writer now, it’s the odd detours that lead to discovery, to moments of insight. Thus The Weil Conjectures—an elegant blend of biography and memoir and a meditation on the creative life.

Personal, revealing, and approachable, The Weil Conjectures eloquently explores math as it relates to intellectual history, and shows how sometimes the most inexplicable pursuits turn out to be the most rewarding.

Praise For The Weil Conjectures: On Math and the Pursuit of the Unknown

"Beguiling . . . A corrective, describing mathematics — its focus, abstraction, odd hunches, blazing epiphanies — as a powerful intoxicant, a door to euphoria . . . The book unfurls effortlessly . . . I was riveted. Olsson is evocative on curiosity as an appetite of the mind, on the pleasure of glutting oneself on knowledge." --Parul Sehgal, The New York Times

"[The Weil Conjectures] builds with the poetry and precision of a theorem." --Elizabeth Winkler, The Wall Street Journal

"A wonderful book . . . Reading it is akin to kicking a can along the road of higher learning, with Simone Weil standing guard as her brother Andre scribbles equations in the cosmic dust. A book causing me to dwell in [the Weils'] realm and the arc above, where mathematics, as E.T. Bell put it, is the queen of science." --Patti Smith (via Instagram)

"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." --Michael J. Barany, Los Angeles Review of Books

"By interweaving the stories of Simone, her brother André Weil (a renowned mathematician), and Olsson’s own mathematical studies, Olsson makes a compelling case for a discipline that can often seem coldly unresponsive to human concerns. Olsson illuminates the beauty and humanity at the heart of mathematical endeavors, with the commitment and charisma necessary to keep laymen engaged. —Noor Qasim, The Paris Review (Staff Pick)

"[Olsson is] an everywoman guide, and what she does brilliantly is to explain the maths clearly and often fascinatingly. Also, and this must be unique among accounts of the Weils, she creates a vivid sense of Simone grappling with the maths alongside us." --Lara Feigel, The Guardian

"An experimental, tantalizing hybrid of biography, memoir, and meditation . . . Digression, the organizing principle of this book, is the temptation of the intellectually adventurous and inquisitive, who will binge on Olsson’s bracing prose . . . a book ecstatic with intimations rather than mere equations." --Steven G. Kellman, Texas Observer

"Karen Olsson paints vivid portraits of both siblings . . . With [The Weil Conjectures], 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." --Evelyn Lamb, Scientific American

"Simultaneously, Olsson plumbs the depths of her own confrontation with math at Harvard and later, with writing, which provides introspection and compassion to the Weils’s story where forces of literature and logic act upon each other to create a nuanced exploration of abstraction versus a lived life." --Kerri Arsenault, Lit Hub (Ten Books You Should Read This July)

"A remarkable tour de force . . . an idiosyncratic, even impressionistic portrait of brother and sister, demonstrating along the way an appreciation for top-flight mathematics . . . [Olsson] illustrates the marvel and god-like wonder of mathematics, fructified by sky-high abstraction and the determination of its exponents to suffer endless battles with confusion and ideas that refuse to work." --Mark Ronan, Standpoint (London)

"[An] appealing combination of memoir and biography . . . [a] unique meditation . . . [an] effective dual biography." --Kirkus

"An unexpected and wholly original delight. By focusing on what has to be the most extraordinarily brilliant brother-sister pair of the last century, Karen Olsson takes us to a realm where sublime mathematical abstraction meets mystical love. The author's relaxed personal tone and novelistic eye for the telling detail make the book effortlessly readable." —Jim Holt, author of When Einstein Walked with Gödel and Why Does the World Exist?

"Deftly moving to and fro between André and Simone Weil’s lives and her own search for mathematical clarity, Karen Olsson informs, persuades, inspires, and delights this reader." —Lily Tuck, author of The Double Life of Liliane

"I always thought my mind wasn’t rational enough to be good at math, but I had a mystical appreciation for it that I’d forgotten about until I read this book, a double portrait of the Weil siblings, the mathematician and the mystic. I loved it for Karen Olsson's humanizing, playful approach to these very serious people, but also for her rigor, her thoughtfulness about writing and creativity, and her refreshing blend of two disciplines I tend to think of, erroneously, as irrevocably at odds: math and literature. The Weil Conjectures has that undefinable x common to all the best books. I can’t wait to read it again." Lauren Elkin, author of Flâneuse

"Beautiful and enigmatic, Karen Olsson's book draws us to the brink of spiritual and mathematical genius, to the edge of a field 'between knowing and not knowing,' to the verge of an audacious conjecture. The Weil Conjectures is a story of brilliant siblings--one philosopher, one mathematician--who spent their lives at the service of the unattainable. In haunting prose, Olsson asks us to remember, in the words of Simone Weil, that "the eternal part of the soul feeds on hunger.' A true achievement." —John Kaag, author of Hiking with Nietzsche

"Karen Olsson has given us a moving, lyrical meditation on André and Simone Weil and the ways genius can take such radically different forms, even within the same family. Few writers could convey with such brilliance and compassion the tensions between literature and mathematics, isolation and communion, logic and intuition, the annihilation of the self and a godly love for others." —Eileen Pollack, author of The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys’ Club

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 9780374287610, 224pp.

Publication Date: July 16, 2019

About the Author

Karen Olsson is the author of the novels Waterloo and All the Houses. She has written for The New York Times Magazine, Slate, Bookforum, and Texas Monthly, among other publications, and she is also a former editor of the Texas Observer. She graduated from Harvard University with a degree in mathematics and lives in Austin, Texas, with her family.