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The Unravelers: Mathematical Snapshots

A K Peters
Number of Pages: 

The story of this book begins with a visit to the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques (IHES) in Bures-sur-Yvette, on the outskirts of Paris. In the prologue, the visitors, who happened to be photographers, say that “we were astounded by the customs of the inhabitants of this uncharted island.” So they started taking pictures.

After a lot of pictures, someone suggested that “if everyone writes a little text” the collection of pictures might become a book. They did, and here it is, translated into appropriately French-sounding English by Vivienne Méla.

Michael Atiyah and Alain Connes in conversationModeled on the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, IHES has both permanent members (few and eminent) and visitors (many and of all kinds). Several of the famous mathematicians associated with IHES appear in the book, including Cartier, Sullivan, Tits, Deligne, Soulé, Gromov, and other names to conjure with. But there is also a generous selection of less famous people. The photos are generally quite wonderful, showing them in action doing the things that mathematicians do: talking to each other, writing on the board, reading papers, walking around in a pensive mood. At the back of the book is an index to all the photos that identifies who appears in each.

The book’s table of contents is mostly a list of names of mathematicians and physicists who appear in the photographs, most of whom contributed some sort of text. The texts vary from pretentious to charming, insightful to vapid. They are definitely not the main attraction here. Between those there are sections with more general pictures: an “interval”, an “entr’acte”, a “pause”, even “teatime”.

IThe Marilyn and James Simons Conference Center (aka Music Pavillion) at IHES often want to show my students what the people we talk about looked (or look) like, but it is often frustrating and difficult to find good photographs of mathematicians, and even harder to get information about when they were made, and by whom. This is one of the things that makes books like this one valuable: here are some of the big names, and we know exactly where and when the photos were taken. Historians, in particular, will find this valuable.

Most of all, however, these expressive photos of mathematicians and theoretical physicists doing what they do are a beautiful record of the life of a place and of the people who go there.

Fernando Q. Gouvêa spent a few months at IHES in the winter of 1987–1988. He didn’t see any photographers around at the time, and he doesn't even know where the pictures he took at the time have ended up. He is now Carter Professor of Mathematics at Colby College in Waterville, ME.

Date Received: 
Monday, December 29, 2008
Include In BLL Rating: 
Jean-François Dars, Annick Lesne and Anne Papillault, editors
Publication Date: 
Fernando Q. Gouvêa
Publish Book: 
Modify Date: 
Wednesday, February 25, 2009