29 November 2008

Neal Stephenson's Anathem

I haven't really digested it yet (in fact, I'm only a third of the way through it), but Anathem by Neal Stephenson is making a strong run at the title of My Favorite Book. Mostly because there's math hidden everywhere inside it. And how could I resist this, which almost feels like something out of The Glass Bead Game:
Three fraas and two suurs sang a five-part motet while twelve others milled around in front of them. Actually they weren't milling; it just looked that way from where we sat. Each one of them represented an upper or lower index in a theorical equation inolving certain tensors and a metric. As they moved to and fro, crossing over one another's paths and exchanging places wile traversing in front of the high table, they were acting out a calculation on the curvature of a four-dimensional manifold, involving various steps of symmetrization, antisymmetrization, and raising and lowering of indices. Seen from above by someone who didn't know any theorics, it would have looked like a country dance. The music was lovely even if it was interrupted every few seconds by the warbling of jeejahs.
Please, Internet, deliver me video of this mathematical dancing. Somewhat more seriously, though, moving pictures often float in my mind (and I suppose the minds of others) as I attempt to understand various mathematical structures.

Stephenson gave an interesting
talk/Q-and-A at Google about the book
, if you've got an hour to kill. I think if you liked Cryptonomicon
you'll like this one; on the other hand I was disappointed by the Baroque Cycle, which lots of people seem to have liked. I suspect this has to do with the times in which they're set; the Baroque Cycle takes place a few centuries ago, Cryptonomicon during World War Two, and Anathem on another planet entirely, but one in which the secular world is roughly comparable to present-day Earth. (Perhaps a bit too comparable; Earth intellectual history and the intellectual history inside Anathem are essentially the same thing with different names.) Except in Anathem, the mathematicians live in what are essentially monasteries cut off from the outside world. I don't think I could handle that. I suppose some would argue that universities aren't the Real World, though...


dfan said...

I really loved the first third of the book too. After that it turned into a different book I was not as interested in. I hope it's more your cup of tea.

Maria H. Andersen said...

I've been listening to the unabridged audio version of Anathem for the last three weeks and I have about 45 minutes to go. Then, I think I will have to re-listen to the entire book to pick up any of the details I didn't understand on the first go-round. I'm loving it. What I love about Stephenson's writing is that it's always a new plot (not just recycling the same plot again and again). I have to agree with you that the sprinklings of math are really intriguing. I wonder if you could use it as a discussion starter for an honors section of math or physics (which you will see is sprinkled in through the latter half).

Jonah said...

For math and dance stuff, sarah-marie belcastro and Karl Schaffer gave a pretty sweet talk at the Joint Meetings this year in San Diego. The stuff in Anathem doesn't sound like much of a stretch from the work they've done. I don't know if you can find any of this online, unfortunately.

Alex said...

I bought the book for $30+ in the airport, because I'd just finished the books I brought along. As usual with Stephenson novels, it took me more than a month to work my way through it-- I find them too dense to absorb in big chunks.

What's not usual is that I wasn't excited, at all, by the plot. And I'm a mathematician.

I appreciate the work he obviously put in, turning deep philosophical and physical insights into what is essentially a novel length dialogue, but in terms of excitement and engagement, this didn't hold a candle to Cryptonomicon, Zodiac, Snowcrash, etc.

The entire book was an anticlimax.