Perils of Popularization

Leonard Mlodinow is a physicist turned writer who has written an autobiographical sketch called Feynman's Rainbow as well as some Star Trek screenplays. He has also written a math popularization called Euclid's Window : The Story of Geometry from Parallel Lines to Hyperspace about which a number of people, including Brian Greene and Edward Witten, have found nice things to say.

I read Feynman's Rainbow, and liked it, especially for it's evocation of the ambience of Caltech in the Feynman and Gell-Mann era, but I haven't read Euclid's Window. Robert Langlands has though and you might say his opening sentence telegraphs his opinion:
This is a shallow book on deep matters, about which the author knows next to nothing.

The review in the AMS Notices is long, erudite, passionate and boundlessly hostile. He clearly thinks Mlodinow gets almost everything wrong, but what really angers him is that (he claims):
...[the book] is certainly thoroughly dishonest, but not to any purpose, rather simply because the author shrinks from nothing in his desperation to be “readable and entertaining”.

He makes a gesture at even-handedness:
The book is wretched; there is no group of readers, young or old, lay or professional, to whom I would care to recommend it. Nonetheless, there are several encomiums on the dust-jacket: from Edward Witten, the dean of string theorists, and from a number of authors of what appear to be popularizations of mathematics. They are all of the contrary opinion; they find that it is “written with grace and charm”, “readable and entertaining”, and so on. Perhaps the book is a hoax, written to expose the vanity of physicists, the fatuity of vulgarizers, the illiteracy of publishers, and the pedantry of at least one priggish mathematician.

The review itself is a fascinating and fact-filled read for someone interested in the history of mathematics. It is almost the outline of the more serious and scholarly book on the "deep subject" that he wishes someone better had written - but says he is unqualified to write.

His viewpoint is the Olympian one that I suppose one should expect of a long-time inhabitant of what Einstein called a "quaint ceremonious village of tiny demigods on stilts." (The Institute for Advanced Study). I doubt that popularizations of mathematics or physics can exist in that thin air.

The link is via Peter Woit at NEW. Peter is mainly concerned with the deep matters of Geometric Langlands, another one of the remarkable mathematical connections of String Theory.


  1. I like the Einstein quote but since the IAS is mostly a retirement home for eminent academics, fading away quietly in bucolic surroundings, it really ought just to be called Institute for Ageing Scholars.

  2. Anonymous5:42 AM

    Evidently Oakley isn't ageing...

  3. Oakley is evidently 47, but unlike most of similar or greater age in academia, would like to hand the majority of decision making in academic research to those 20 years younger.


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