Mathematicians, An Outer View of the Inner World, is an irresistible book. It consists of ninety-two positively stunning portraits by Mariana Cook (evidently the last pupil (or protégé) of Ansel Adams) accompanied by brief introspective essays by her subjects on the facing pages. The ninety-two subjects span the entire spectrum of the art, to use a loaded phrase, from theoretical computer science to harmonic analysis, from differential geometry to algebraic number theory.
The choice of subjects is outstanding: almost every one in the mathematical world has met or corresponded with at least some of these representative scholars, and many among the latter are household words. So it is that the personal reflections accompanying the marvelous photographic portraits more often than not come across as chats with friends or acquaintances, modulo the fact that there is certainly a general awareness that the invisible interlocutor is not a fellow mathematician. Still, it’s all “Mathematician Speak,” and all of us will feel entirely at home in the conversation.
This is much more than a coffee-table book: it’s the sort of thing that will gulp up oceans of time once the book is cracked by anyone in the field: turn the page and find another one whom you’ve heard of, or even know, and whose comments are a source of tantalizing interest, then do it again, and again… When the book arrived I intended to spend just a minute or two browsing through it: off by an order of magnitude.
So Mathematicians, An Outer View of the Inner World is bound to be a favorite in mathematical circles, and, in view of the objective fascination provided by the introspective prose of the players, also among those who interact with us mathematicians, from the members of our families to visitors from the real world resting a while in our living rooms. Put the book on your coffee table and watch what happens.
Here is a quiz:
Answers can be found on pp. 172, 30, 38, 132, 72, respectively.
Michael Berg is Professor of Mathematics at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, CA.