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Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Quicksilver

I’m currently reading Quicksilver (William Morrow, Sept. 2003), by Neal Stephenson, previously author of The Diamond Age, Snow Crash, and Cryptonomicon, the last of which I should probably add to my list of favorite books. Quicksilver totals a mere 960 pages, in contrast to Cryptonomicon, which takes a hefty 1168. These novels are primarily historical fiction, with a heavy admixture of science fiction. The stories and some of the characters overlap somewhat — not only in these two books but more so between Quicksilver and two others that I haven’t mentioned yet: Quicksilver is actually only the first novel in the three-volume Baroque Cycle, which also includes The Confusion (William Morrow, April 2004) and The System of the World (William Morrow, Sept. 2004). It’s a “cycle,” but as Stephenson says, “I know everyone’s going to call it a trilogy anyway.”

Quicksilver — at least in the first hundred pages — alternates between mid-seventeenth-century England and early-eighteenth-century Massachusetts. Gottfried Leibniz and Isaac Newton are two of the many characters in it, with a supporting cast that intermingles historical figures and fictional ones. The historical content focuses on the Puritans (on both sides of the Atlantic), the Restoration, the bubonic plague of 1665, conflicts with the Dutch and the French, the tremendous scientific ferment of the era, and other important themes of the times, but of course I’ve been drawn as well to the history of mathematics that also permeates the novel. As with all historical fiction, the reader has to realize that Stephenson intermingles truth and fiction; the following paragraph about the young Newton as an undergraduate provides a lovely example that would capture the attention of any math educator [italics and punctuation as in the original]:
Isaac hadn’t studied Euclid that much, and hadn’t cared enough to study him well. If he wanted to work with a curve he would instinctively write it down, not as an intersection of planes and cones, but as a series of numbers and letters: an algebraic expression. That only worked if there was a language, or at least an alphabet, that had the power of expressing shapes without literally depicting them, a problem that Monsieur Descartes had lately solved by (first) conceiving of curves, lines, et cetera, as being collections of individual points and (then) devising a way to express a point by giving its coordinates — two numbers, or letters representing numbers, or (best of all) algebraic expressions that could in principle be evaluated to generate numbers. This translated all geometry to a new language with its own set of rules: algebra. The construction of equations was an exercise in translation. By following those rules, one could create new statements that were true, without even having to think about what the symbols referred to in any physical universe. It was this seemingly occult power that scared the hell out of some Puritans at the time, and even seemed to scare Isaac a bit.

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