The Weil Conjectures (Hardcover)

On Math and the Pursuit of the Unknown

By Karen Olsson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 9780374287610, 224pp.

Publication Date: July 16, 2019

List Price: 26.00*
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An eloquent blend of memoir and biography exploring the Weil siblings, math, and creative inspiration

Karen Olsson always had an aptitude for math but wasn’t exactly a prodigy. And yet when she entered Harvard as an undergraduate she was drawn to it, forcing herself into a discipline that had always felt just beyond her reach. As a math student then and as a writer now, she was and is chasing a feeling—the brink of breakthrough, the flash of insight. For Olsson, and for her newest obsession, the Weil siblings, creative thought rests on the making of unlikely connections. Thus The Weil Conjectures—a beguiling blend of biography and memoir and a meditation on the creative life.

In The Weil Conjectures, Olsson narrates the story of the Weil siblings—Simone, the famous French philosopher, mystic, and social activist, and her brother, André, the influential yet often overlooked mathematician—as well as the lore of math and Olsson’s own experience of it. During her research, Olsson got hold of the 1940 letters between Simone and André. The letters forced her to revisit her college years and to reassess her present-day life in the hopes of understanding the place of math, and unattainable knowledge, in her own world.

Personal and revealing, and avoiding theorems and numbers, Olsson eloquently explores math as it relates to intellectual history, and shows how sometimes, the most inexplicable of passions turn out to be the most rewarding.

About the Author

Karen Olsson is a writer-at-large for Texas Monthly and a former editor of The Texas Observer. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Baffler, The Nation, and other publications, and has Awards from the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies for best investigative reporting and best news feature. She lives in Austin, Texas. Waterloo is her first novel.

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

"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?

The Weil Conjectures is an alluring meditation on geometry, sacrifice, and adolescent self-discovery, delivered in passionate, impressionistic bursts.” —Jordan Ellenberg, New York Times bestselling author of How Not to Be Wrong

"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