Friday, July 17, 2015

Siobhan Roberts

Siobhan Roberts is a Toronto journalist and author whose work focuses on mathematics and science. Her new book is Genius at Play, The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway (Bloomsbury, 2015). While writing the Conway biography, she was a Director’s Visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, and a Fellow at the Leon Levy Center for Biography, at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City.

Her previous books are Wind Wizard: Alan G. Davenport and the Art of Wind Engineering (Princeton University Press, 2012), and King of Infinite Space: Donald Coxeter, The Man Who Saved Geometry (Bloomsbury, 2006). King of Infinite Space won the Mathematical Association of America’s 2009 Euler Prize for expanding the public’s view of mathematics.

Roberts also wrote and produced a documentary film about Coxeter, The Man Who Saved Geometry, for TVOntario’s The View From Here (September 2009).

And she is the recipient of four National Magazine Awards in the science and technology longform features category (two Silver; two Honourable Mention).

Recently I asked Roberts about what she was reading. Her reply:
I’m on a David Mitchell jag at the moment. I started with his latest book, The Bone Clocks. And then I went to Black Swan Green, which I distinctly remember eyeing on the new books table when it came out in 2006, at Book City near my house in Toronto, but for whatever reason I wasn’t taken in at the time. However, it was definitely meant to be. My copy now has several dog-eared pages (though I am conflicted on whether or not this is an advisable practice; my husband thinks not). For instance, therein I found: “Fitting words together makes time go through narrower pipes but faster.” I think that is notion is true of writing, and reading, both. Reading can be challenging. And at the moment I’m finding Mitchell’s book Cloud Atlas challenging. As well as The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, which was recommended to me as Mitchell’s best. But for some reason my brain is not latching on to either. The pipes are too small, and/or the flow is blocked, and so time, and the pages, almost stand still. I’m thinking maybe it is a sign of the state of my brain— which is to say helter-skelter. And then in the midst of all this, a couple of weeks ago I read a reassuring New York Review of Books piece by Tim Parks, titled, “Reading is Forgetting.” It’s a nice meditation on reading. As Parks writes:
…I ran across a quotation from Vladimir Nabokov on the Internet: “Curiously enough,” the author of Lolita tells us, “one cannot read a book: one can only reread it.” Intrigued by this paradox, I checked out the essay it came from. “When we read a book for the first time,” Nabokov complains, “the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation.” Only on a third or fourth reading, he claims, do we start behaving toward a book as we would toward a painting, holding it all in the mind at once.
So maybe this is simply what’s in store with me and reading, generally, for the time being. But then again, as Parks concludes (and it was this sentiment, sampled by a friend on Twitter, that attracted me to the essay in the first place): “No reader ever really takes complete control of a book—it’s an illusion—and perhaps to expend vast quantities of energy seeking to do so is a form of impoverishment.”
Learn more about the book and author at Siobhan Roberts' website.

The Page 69 Test: King of Infinite Space.

The Page 99 Test: Wind Wizard.

--Marshal Zeringue