Biographies of abstract thinkers wanted
July 27, 2010 7:10 AM   Subscribe

Looking for biographies of scientists or mathematicians.

I've read Fermat's Enigma by Simon Singh, and am now reading The Man Who Loved Only Numbers by Paul Hoffman.

I'm looking for more biographies of people who have made huge advances in fields involving abstract thought or solving tough abstract problems. Books detailing the solving tough abstract problems would also fit the bill.

Suggestions? Thanks!
posted by reenum to Science & Nature (22 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges is the book that immediately sprung to mind based on your description.

If you have the stomach for the even (or is it odd?) chapters, which describe the physics in a fairly technical way but in a biographical context, Subtle is the Lord by Pais is the definitive Einstein biography.

Peter Ackroyd's Newton biography is wonderful. Perhaps a bit more poetic than abstract in a philosophical sense, but well-written and concise.
posted by caek at 7:16 AM on July 27, 2010

Best answer: How about a film?

Dr Ehrlich's magic bullet. The search for a cure for syphilis.
posted by biffa at 7:20 AM on July 27, 2010

Best answer: The Strangest Man about Paul Dirac.
posted by vacapinta at 7:20 AM on July 27, 2010

If you haven't already, check out Richard Feynman's memoirs, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman and What Do You Care What Other People Think. There's also Genius, which is a bit dry, but has a a lot of discussion on how he overcame many of the contemporary problems of physics.
posted by Herschel at 7:25 AM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

In the unlikely event you haven't heard about Longitude - the story of John Harrison
posted by MuffinMan at 7:29 AM on July 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Everything and More - David Foster Wallace's book about set theory and infinity. Very fun.
posted by Lemurrhea at 7:48 AM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Prime Obsession is a book that alternates chapters about The Riemann Hypothesis and biographical chapters about Remann.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 7:56 AM on July 27, 2010

Best answer: Nthing Genius by James Gleick. Great book. Gleick also wrote a biography of Newton, but I have not read it.
posted by bread-eater at 8:17 AM on July 27, 2010

Best answer: Stan Ulam - Adventures of a Mathematician. Ulam worked in both pure maths, and on the Manhattan project, so there's quite a lot of interesting material in here.
posted by crocomancer at 8:19 AM on July 27, 2010

Best answer: The full text of A Mathematician's Apology is in Canadian public domain. But the edition with Snow's biographical foreword fits your request better.
posted by Jorus at 8:28 AM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Note that Everything And More--while it does contain a lot of biographical stuff, especially about Cantor--is not a biography per se. It is also rather boring in parts and inaccurate in other parts (I say this with a heavy heart, as a massive DFW fan with a graduate degree in pure math). It's not a bad book, but don't beat yourself up if you end up skipping around and not reading every word.

I enthusiastically recommend I Want To Be a Mathematician by Paul Halmos and Random Curves by Neal Koblitz. Both are autobiographies of contemporary mathematicians with truly interesting lives, and both are a pleasure to read. By the way, Koblitz has a very broad view of what the responsibilities of a mathematician and an academic should be, and his commitment to social justice takes some very tangible forms that you might not expect (especially after reading the book about Erdős).

I'm sure there are others I'm forgetting--I might come back later with more.
posted by AkzidenzGrotesk at 8:36 AM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yeah, Everything and More is neither a biography nor good (and I, like AG above, am a huge DFW fan and a mathematician.)

The Music of the Primes
, also about the Riemann Hypothesis, is a good companion to Prime Obsession. Note, though, that these are about a problem that has NOT yet been solved!

Amir Alexander's Duel at Dawn is a really interesting treatment of a group of mathematicians at the turn of the 19th century, and the transition from the more physically based mathematics of the past to the abstract stuff we do now. My review.
posted by escabeche at 9:01 AM on July 27, 2010

Best answer: The Man Who Loved Only Numbers about Paul Erdos
posted by jonp72 at 9:19 AM on July 27, 2010

Best answer: Oops, I meant to say My Brain Is Open, the other book about Paul Erdos.
posted by jonp72 at 9:22 AM on July 27, 2010

Best answer: A now-classic biography is of course Men of Mathematics by Eric Temple Bell. (See the Wikipedia article for his list of subjects.)

While I did have some reservations about A World Without Time: The Forgotten Legacy of Gödel and Einstein by Palle Yourgrau (Amazon, LOC) it can be recommended. As it is not intended to be a thorough biography of either man nor a technical exposition of the ideas it risks not satisfying either subject; but it may provide an overview for further pursuits.

On the subject of Gödel: Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel by Rebecca Goldstein was generally critically well-received (I haven't read it). (Amazon's review notes, however, that "biographical details tak[e] something of a back seat to the philosophical and mathematical underpinnings of his theories".)

I strongly recommend the Canto edition of G. H. Hardy's A Mathematician's Apology with C. P. Snow's illuminating biographical preface (linked by Jorus above).

Of course there must be others. . . .
posted by yz at 9:40 AM on July 27, 2010

Logicomix, about Bertrand Russell, by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou, drawn by Alecos Papadatos and colored by Annie Di Donna. (I bought it for my husband at Fry's for $winterholiday, totally unaware that he actually knew Papadimitriou from Berkeley.)

On my reading list: Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age , Kurt Beyer, MIT Press.
posted by wintersweet at 11:06 AM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

The ultimate:

American Prometheus - the definitive biography of Oppenheimer.
posted by fso at 12:59 PM on July 27, 2010

Lise Meitner and nuclear fission. I found the story of her breakthrough brainwave gripping. I haven't read the second linked book, so couldn't say how the two biographies compare.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 2:12 PM on July 27, 2010

Best answer: Srinivasa Ramanujan is covered in The Man Who Knew Infinity. (His mentor wrote A Mathematicians Apology, mentioned above by Jorus, who might enjoy it.)

(Plus I was looking for this when I found this)
posted by IndigoJones at 5:34 PM on July 27, 2010

(as might yz)
posted by IndigoJones at 5:36 PM on July 27, 2010

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