»  National Review Online

October 3rd, 2002

  A Hymn to Western Civ


The making of a book is a long process, carried out in well-defined stages. The last stage at which an author has the chance to make any changes to his text, above the level of a word here or a comma there, is called "copy editing." What happens is, a specially-trained reader goes over your manuscript with a fine-tooth comb, fact-checking, looking for errors in grammar or spelling, adjusting optional usages to the "house style," and adding some bits and pieces for the benefit of the typesetters, who control the following phase. The copy-edited manuscript is passed back to the author for last words and decisions on doubtful points. ("Did you really mean to say this?")

This is the work I've been absorbed in this past couple of weeks, getting my book through the copy editing stage. It's a grisly chore. By this time the writer has read his manuscript half a dozen times all through, and is thoroughly sick of it. It is, in fact, pretty well impossible to read it at this stage — your eye just skates over whole paragraphs. ("Oh, yeah, I know what that says.") An acquaintance who has written several books claims that if you start off reading aloud a paragraph from anywhere in one of his books, he can finish the paragraph from memory. I can't truthfully claim that, but I don't find it hard to believe.

Then the copy editor comes along and stirs it all up. These people know their business, I'll say that. At one point in my present book, I have a character "carrying a shotgun under his arm." Should be 'over his arm,' said the copy editor. That cost me a full five minutes of vacillation. The usual way to carry a shotgun is with the stock under your upper arm but the barrel over your forearm. So what do I say, "over" or "under"? I let the change stand. These guys are generally right.

And then there is the PC stuff. Of nuclear physics, I had this to say: "'Splitting the atom' is, as every high-school physics teacher tells his classes, a misnomer. You split atoms every time you strike a match. What we are really talking about here is the splitting of the atomic nucleus …"  BEEP! The modern sensibility sees in that first sentence an implicit sneer at the women of the world, who the writer apparently believes are not smart enough to be physics teachers. It's the kind of thing I write naturally, having been brought up with the rule enunciated by Winston Churchill that "the male embraces the female" — that is, that the pronoun "he," unless expressly restricted in scope by its context, or by additional words, is understood to mean "he or she." How quaint!

It's not that copy editors are guardians of the PC flame. Some are, some aren't. It's just that certain things will not do in today's America, and using "he" to refer to a generic physics teacher is one of those things, whether the copy editor likes it or not.

And whether the author likes it or not. I let the change stand, since I don't want some eagle-eyed school librarian in some place like Northampton, Massachusetts banning my book. I did draw the line, though, at a similar proposed change elsewhere in the manuscript. Speaking of the striking longevity of mathematicians, I quoted the following passage from a book titled The Mathematician's Art of Work, published in 1967 by the great English number theorist J.E. Littlewood:  "Mathematics is very hard work, and dons tend to be above the average in health and vigor. Below a certain threshold a man cracks up, but above it hard mental work makes for health and vigor (also — on much historical evidence through the ages — for longevity)."  That brought out the highlighters. I fought back, pointing out that it is a quote, for crying out loud. It's a real shame that Littlewood wasn't PC, but he was a great man none the less, and I am not going to mangle his words.*

I have my own sweet, quiet revenge against the PC police, in any case. A non-fiction book needs some photographs. I am as conservative about this as I am about most everything else: I like to see the photographs all together in the middle of the book (the publishing term of art is a "well"), not scattered through the text. With a book about mathematics, there is nothing much to illustrate by way of photographs, other than mathematicians. I therefore went through my manuscript picking out the names of those who had contributed to the topic I am writing about, great mathematicians from the early 18th century on. Then I got photographs of them all from various museums, universities, and private sources, and arranged them in what I thought was an appropriate way. I ended up with thirty photographs. Every single one of them was a white European male.

That they are all male is not very surprising. Practically all the great mathematicians of the past 300 years were male, and it happens that none of the scattering of first-class female mathematicians who worked in that period made much of an impression on the topic of my book. (There is some evidence, by the way, that taken in the generality, women are slightly better at math than men are. That is only true in the middle regions of the bell curve though. The extreme right-hand tail of the bell curve, where outstanding genius lives, is heavily male.)

That all 30 of my heroes are white Europeans is much more interesting. They come from Switzerland, Germany, France, Russia, Britain, Denmark, Austria, Hungary, Finland, Sweden, and North America.**  There is a bit of bias here because the first half of my book deals with events up to 1900, and there is more "diversity" in mathematics nowadays. At the Courant Institute conference in May there was a fair sprinkling of Japanese, Chinese, and Indians.***  (Readers of Simon Singh's pop-math bestseller Fermat's Enigma may recall the Taniyama-Shimura Conjecture.) India especially has produced some really first-class mathematicians, and my book mentions a couple (Srinivasa Ramanujan and Sarvadaman Chowla) in passing. Still, there is no denying that if you write a book about higher mathematical research in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, you are writing about white guys from Europe and her colonies.

The story of the human race during this past 500 years is, almost in its entirety, the story of Western civilization — of its boldness, restlessness, independence of mind, ingenuity, curiosity. The contributions to human knowledge made by Europeans this past half-millennium are staggering; and even when a contributor has been non-European, he (male embraces female, remember) nearly always turns out to have been educated by Europeans. This great starburst of cultural energy has continued down to the present. In his Intellectual History of the 20th Century, Peter Watson notes that: "In the 20th century, in the modern world, there were no non-western ideas of note."

I have no idea why this is, nor do I see any particular reason why it should continue. Perhaps, as I sometimes think, our civilization is on its last legs. Perhaps the great source of cultural dynamism during the next half-millenium will be South-East Asia, or Latin America, or Polynesia, or Africa. Who knows? History is full of surprises, and every dog has his day. (Did you know that Tibet was once a mighty warrior nation, whose name struck terror into people from Siberia to Bengal?)

All I know, looking through the photograph "well" for my book, is that without intending to — without any intent at all, other than to tell the story of a great mathematical conundrum and the people who tackled it — I have written a hymn of praise to Western Civ.

There goes my hope of a job at the New York Times.

* Littlewood lived to be 92, working almost to the end. At his 90th birthday party a young colleague made a speech expressing the hope that he would be present ten years later, to celebrate Littlewood's 100th birthday. Littlewood: "I don't see why not. You look pretty healthy."

** The U.S.A., actually, so far as the photograph "well" is concerned. The only Canadian in my book is the geometer H.S.M. Coxeter, who everyone calls "Donald," for mysterious reasons. Coxeter is another case of extraordinary mathematical longevity. Born in 1907, he is still listed on the faculty of Toronto University — I see he published a paper last year. Says a mathematician who knows him: "Donald used to be much more prolific. He's slowed down some in recent years …"

*** No black faces, no Arabs — though Sir Michael Atiyah, one of the greats of the past 50 years, is half Lebanese. There were at least two Israelis at the conference.