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The Weil Conjectures: On Maths and the Pursuit of the Unknown by Karen Olsson

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Simone Weil: famous French philosopher, writer, political activist, mystic – and sister to André, one of the most influential mathematicians of the twentieth century. For Karen Olsson, who studied mathematics at Harvard only to turn to writing as a vocation, the lives and obsessions of these two extraordinary siblings returned her to the intellectual passions of her youth.

When Olsson got hold of the 1940 letters between Simone and André, she discovered that André’s pursuit of his studies became increasingly incomprehensible to his sister, leading to Simone directly questioning him about the value of such rarefied knowledge as it applied to the lived experience. Struck by this conflict, Olsson revisits her own time at university, how she came to be consumed by mathematics, and the unexpected similarities that can be found between two seemingly opposed subjects. At the core of the book lies her curiosity about the inception of creative thought – that flash of insight – experienced by writers and mathematicians alike.

A rare work of non-fiction that intricately weaves together biography, memoir, history and philosophy, and written with prose of precision and poetic lucidity, The Weil Conjectures is nothing short of a complete seduction in the art of mathematics, and the mysterious nature of scientific and creative thought.

“A wonderful book … Reading it is akin to kicking a can along the road of higher learning” –  Patti Smith

“A vivid account of the relationship between Simone and André Weil takes in political action, unworldliness and the history of maths … Uniquely among accounts of the Weils, Olsson creates a vivid sense of Simone grappling with the maths alongside us” –  Lara Feigel, Guardian

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