If this young man expresses himselfLife has been kind to faux mathematician David Berlinski. Reviewers praised the turgid but high-flown prose of A Tour of the Calculus to the skies, fooled by the author's ruffles and flourishes into thinking they were learning something about mathematics. I'm jealous, of course. Perhaps I should learn a lesson from him and tart up my writing.
in terms too deep for me,
Why, what a very singularly deep young man
this deep young man must be!
But no. I have too much self-respect.
On the other hand, no one else seems to have as much respect for David Berlinski as David Berlinski himself. I inadvertently discovered more evidence of this while innocently browsing the offerings of a local bookstore. There on the table was a paperback edition of Infinite Ascent, Berlinski's venture into the world of math history. Struggling through Tour was all the exposure I felt I needed to his ham-handed treatment of mathematical topics, but I didn't resist the impulse to pick up the book and page through it. On page 106, I encountered a gemlike example of Berlinski's lapidary skill (note particularly the sentence which I render in bold):
Like a Parisian jeweler setting out the rarest of stones, he published only those of his papers that he believed had reached a state of formal perfection and lucidity.Berlinski is talking about Gauss (and himself!) here. Carl Friedrich Gauss is a towering figure in mathematics—the Prince of Mathematicians—who took seriously his motto of “Few, but ripe” in his approach to publishing his discoveries.
It is a policy that I myself follow.
Berlinski fancies himself cut from the same cloth. He hasn't even the mild grace to say “It is a policy that I myself strive to follow.” Oh, no! Gauss's policy is his own. (Please to overlook the fact that he precedes this claim with a sentence that eloquently testifies to the contrary.)
I laughed aloud in the midst of the bookstore, fished a scrap of paper out of my pocket, and jotted down Berlinski's deadly example of deathless prose for the uncharitable purpose of making fun of it. And now I have done so.
But let us not stop there. Perhaps the passage in Infinite Descent is a fluke, an exception to the author's Gaussian standard. Let's peek into A Tour of the Calculus, shall we?
My copy has 314 pages. The random number generator on my HP calculator suggests I look at page 280. Can I find a silly sentence on this randomly selected page? How about this one?
This simple and dramatic appeal to the area underneath a curve succeeds not only in creating a new function—that was guaranteed by the very definition of the indefinite integral—but in creating a new function with precisely the properties required by the natural logarithm, so that the appeal to the function 1/t and the indefinite integral suggests more than anything else an actor slapping on grease paint in what seems a slap-dash way only to emerge moments later as precisely the character in a Shakespearean play whose vivid features figure in the program notes.Bravo! Author! Author! Gauss has met his match! [Snicker]
I swear I am not cherry-picking. I really let my calculator select that page. Once more unto the breach, dear friends. My calculator chooses page 227. What ripeness do we find thereon? This ripeness:
“Antidifferentiation is an operation that involves a reversal of form,” I say, “and if a pictorial image is wanted it should be drawn from the world of fencing, as when the fencing master thrusts—differentiation—and with an enigmatic smile playing on his features after his opponent murmurs touché, backs up and retracts his elegant foil—antidifferentiation.”That's quite a heaping helping of pellucid prose, ain't it? This is what prompted the San Francisco Chronicle to claim that Berlinski's “writing is so clean and powerful.” Touché! (Perhaps in la tête.)
Words fail me, although not in quite the way that they fail Berlinski. People fall all over themselves to declare him an expository genius. We can expect similar paroxysms of delight over his latest book, an attack on nonbelievers: The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions. I do not have this new volume (which carries the delightful publication date of April Fool's Day), but it's further evidence of Berlinski's utter inability to catch himself at self-parody. He has been most notable in recent years for his scientific pretensions as a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture. Despite being a self-professed agnostic, Berlinski specializes in giving aid and comfort to the Discovery Institute's theistic creationists, lending his supposed scientific credentials (degrees in math and philosophy) to their cause. Hence the new book. No doubt The Devil's Delusion is one of his greatest works.
And I mean that entirely sincerely.