Books: Proof, The Humans, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage
Proof by David Auburn
This is the Pulitzer-Prize- and Tony-winning 2000 play about a woman who, after the death of her mathematician father, deals with the handling of his papers, which may include useful and interesting proofs. It is one of a number of plays I'm reading as I continue to co-direct The Well-Made Play for the Hideout Theatre.
Sadly, I've let a lot of time pass since I actually read this (it was the first "play-reading night" for our cast and crew), so I don't retain many impressions of it. Which is kind of bad, really, because it's one of the canonical examples of what we're going for with The Well-Made Play: a small cast of characters with close connections, sitting on agonizing secrets, staying in one place together as a story plays out in something approximating real time.
And this show plays that out perfectly. The characters have depth and nuance, and Mr. Auburn manages to construct a very traditional plot. The mystery of "what's in dad's notebooks?" serves like an A-story, the tension between Catherine and her sister feels like a B-story, the drama is tempered with some pretty big laughs — I know it's crazy to say this, but it's structurally similar to a TV drama.
But it's theater, so there are massive differences. Most notably, the plot gets stretched out. A scene that would be two or three minutes in a TV show — so we can get to the next thing — grows out to ten or twelve minutes in the play. It's got a great plot, but it's not *about* the plot, it's about these characters, and it's about these deeper, philosophical questions about the responsibilities of family and, hell, the nature of knowledge itself.
Perhaps predictably, this play gets math almost hilariously wrong. It follows the usual public view of math, that at its highest levels, it's pursued by lone geniuses, who are touched by magnificent talent, and who labor alone in their garretts to create thoughts that no one has ever seen the likes of before. And in doing so — in getting to the heart of the nature of the core of reality — they risk incurring <spooky voice> maaaaaadness.
That's... not really how it works.
The closest example to this is Andrew Wiles, who labored for seven years, alone, to prove Fermat's Last Theorem. But even he was working immediately off of the Taniyama-Shiruma Conjecture, work with modular forms and elliptical equations that, well, at least two other folks (Taniyama and Shimura) had worked on. It was a stroke of genius to realize it applied to FLT, but it was not just wandering off alone. And in any case, his seven-year proof was wrong — he immediately had to collaborate with other mathematicians to patch up a hole in it.
Math tends to be collaborative. The "question that's been around for as long as there have been prime numbers" is probably the twin primes conjecture — the notion that there's an infinite number of prime pairs that are separated by two, like "5 and 7" or "11 and 13". And, in fact, the biggest recent breakthrough on this was from an unknown lecturer in New Hampshire, who proved an infinitude of prime pairs separated by at least seventy billion or so. And then? Then, every number theorist in the world started collaborating online to narrow that gap. (It's been amazing — they've whittled it down to 246 now. I may see twin primes proved in my lifetime, which is *insane*.)
And math tends to be done by people who are not TOUCHED BY GODLIKE TALENT, but who are into the subject and put in a lot of hard work for a lot of years. i.e., it's like every other field in the world: you get good at it by working hard at it. We never acknowledge this, most likely, because we'd rather be unlucky (i.e., "untalented") than just lazy.
I have opinions. Anyway.
The play is a great read, well deserving of its accolades, and worth your valuable time.
The Humans by Stephen Karam
This is the Tony-Award-winning 2015 play about a fraught family Thanksgiving in the wake of 9/11, economic uncertainty, and a raft of unpleasant family secrets. It is one of a number of plays I'm reading as I continue to co-direct The Well-Made Play for the Hideout Theatre.
Like I've mentioned before, eventually you just start playing "modern theater bingo". Yes, here's a small family. They're in a single house divided up into rooms. They have terrible secrets. And we watch things slowly fall apart over the course of a party. Okay, if we just have an aging relative who never speaks coherently we — oh, there we go, that's bingo.
But it is fascinating to that basic theatrical tool put in service of a very zeitgeisty look at New York reeling from economic inequality and a still-unhealed wound from 9/11. And I love how far it's willing to get from bland, normal, realism — especially towards the end, the stark combination of loud noise and minimal lighting must be powerfully affecting.
But beyond that, I find myself with little to say about it. I suppose it didn't stick in my memory as well as I'd like. Perhaps its focus on Catholicism didn't connect with me. But I still remember that gut feeling like just being alive in America feels more and more fraught — more and more like there are terrible noises all around, and unsettling figures in the darkness.
The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua
This is the compilation of Sydney Padua's webcomic about Charles Babbage, the inventor of the first computer, and Ada Lovelace, its first programmer. In reality, the "difference engine" was never completed and Lovelace died of cancer in her thirties. In Ms. Padua's exhaustively-researched comic, they successfully built an amazingly elaborate steam-powered computer, and then had adventures fighting crime and causing trouble in Victorian society.
So. You probably already know if you're here for this. Either you want to see Victorian computer pioneers go on silly adventures, or you don't. I can tell you that the book delivers what it promises, and you can kind of go from there.
Beyond that there isn't really much to say. There isn't a lot of riveting storytelling going on in these "thrilling adventures", but that's more-or-less okay: the book isn't about the plot. Instead, the thin plots serve as clotheslines for sharp character work — I mean, good lord the two titular characters have more personality than entire runs of other comics — constant, Airplane! quantities of jokes, and mountains of fascinating Victorian trivia. (There are pages where the footnotes take up more space than the story, and you find yourself not minding a bit.)
For the most part, there's no deeper meaning to the comics, apart from the melancholy of knowing that everything turned out so much worse. Nobody recognized the potential of the difference engine. Ada died young. And even had she lived, the monumental sexism of Victorian London made it hard as hell for her to contribute to this nascent field of mathematics. The last story hints at that, with the boundary between this "pocket universe" and our own growing thin — before the spell of the book dissolves, we understand, with a heavier heart, exatly how much we've lost.
But by and large, this is just wall-to-wall delightful silliness — good 'comfort food' reading. And, again, you already know if this is your thing or not. It's like spending a nice afternoon drinking tea and talking historical trivia with a grad-student who absolutely delights in their specialty.
For next week: I'm now watching the last season of TableTop as 'comfort food'. I'm currently reading The Final Days, the Woodward and Bernstein book about the end/collapse of the Nixon presidency.
Mood: contemplative · Music: none