Felipe Voloch, University of Texas.|
"Strange attractors: Collection of short stories, some of which have
mathematical content. Two stories (the geometry of soap bubbles and
impossible love and strange attractors) figure the same
main character, a brilliant young female mathematician who works on
soap bubbles. The story does not dwell so much on the math but it does
mention some facts such as soap films always making angles of 120 or
105 degrees. Like in The Mind-Body Problem,
mathematicians are portrayed as socially awkward but clearly the
author has spend time among mathematicians and captures some of their
idiossincrasies. (Quite unlike the dreadful Leaning Towards Infinity whose author probably
never met a mathematician and whose portrayal of them is truly
It is almost unfair to call this a collection of short stories, since they are all tied together so nicely. The common themes of Judaism and mathematics run through most of them, but they are tied together in a more explicit way by the last story (Strange Attractors).
The mathematician that Voloch describes in his review above is Phoebe Saunders, grandchild of an actress from the experimental Yiddish theatre and daughter of a classics professor at Barnard.
|(quoted from Strange Attractors)|
It was while she was a graduate student at Princeton that she had returned to her soap bubbles, this time captivated by the exquisite geometry of their convergence.
Bright clusters of infinite variety. But beneath the play of iridescence on shifting forms are rigorous description and rules of simple elegance, embodying perfect symmetry, and determining which configurations are possible and which aren't the "Plateau rules," named after a Belgian physicist who had formulated them more than a century ago:
Soap bubbles consist of flat or smoothly curved surfaces, seamlessly joined together, with surfaces meeting in only two ways: either exactly three surfaces meet along a smooth curve, or six surfaces (together with four curves) meet at a vertex.
The angles formed are always equal -- 120 degrees when three surfaces meet along a curve, close to 109 degress when four curves meet at a point -- so that all the elaborate, asymetrical shapes of froth are built of itneratctions of maximal symmetry.
But beyond the simply stated Plateau rules lies a range of mathematical problems of satisfying intricacy, combining both analytic and geometric techniques into a branch of mathematics mirroring, to Pheobe's awestruck mind, the luminous beauty of the soap bubbles themselves.
The stories almost all focus on character rather than plot. We learn about the characters' thoughts, motivations and relationships. In "Rabbinical Eyes", the main character is the daughter of a Rabbinical scholar who is unable to keep a job as a congregational Rabbi in the US. The mathematics in this story is more elementary, but still possibly of interest to mathematicians/math educators. Here the mathematics is grade school mathematics, the subject in which she "competes" with the smartest kid in school.
In the title story, "Strange Attractors", we travel with Phoebe to
IHES in Paris for a workshop run by the godlike Antoine
Shahaza. She seems to have been invited as much for the novel ability
to recite Shakespeare in Yiddish (learned from her grandmother) as for
her mathematics. There we meet an interesting cast of characters,
mathematicians and their relatives, who strike me at least as
being very realistic.
There is a bit of mathematical discussion when IHES resident genius
Oren Glube helps her by suggesting a dynamic approach to the problem
she is considering. (This is where the `strange attractor' of the
title comes in.) Oddly, I think I would have liked the story better
had this brief passage been left out because it is the only thing that
makes me not believe in the characters...without this somewhat bogus
sounding mathematics the characters seem entirely real to me.
My rating of 3 out of 5 for math is based on the whole collection
of stories, some of which have no math, and in some of which math