Don's Diary

June 11, 1999

Week 1

This has been the year of the brain. The shortlist for the Rhone-Poulenc Prize for science writing features books which are either about the mind, or feature remarkable ones. We have already reduced 100 books to a shortlist of six.

Mathematicians of genius somehow exemplify pure mind. The most curious of all belonged to Paul Erdos, a Hungarian number theorist of such devotion that he preferred primes to sex. He never had a home, but wandered from mathematician to mathematician, solving the hitherto unsolvable. When any colleague stopped doing theorems Erdos pronounced him "dead" (when he really was dead, he had "left"). He stimulated his mind with amphetamines, in spite of, or perhaps because of which he did brilliant things into old age. Most mathematicians "die" before they are 35. So splendidly odd was Erdos that two biographies have been published in the last year, of which Paul Hoffman's The Man Who Loved Only Numbers gives the better insight into his arcane numerical world. Fortunately, Rita Carter's exemplary Mapping the Mind allows me to recognise that Erdos must have suffered from Asperger's Syndrome: an obsessive-compulsive condition whereby the victim may exhibit focused genius combined with no social skills. Suddenly, I see some of my own colleagues in a new light.

Week 2

Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works is a tour de force. I am impressed by the sheer weight of his erudition. Later on in the book, I am almost oppressed by it, overwhelmed by weight of examples. Do we need five quotes of rabbinical lore about dietary rules? Do we need to know every TV show that has featured humanoid aliens? I feel tempted to think of it as how the mind overworks.

Week 3

A Beautiful Mind is a biography of another brilliant mathematician, John Nash. At an early age he developed game theory, which has become crucial to economic modelling. Then he went mad. In his youth he seemed like a nasty, arrogant individual, liable to put down those not so prodigiously clever as himself ("a one-theorem person"). The most extraordinary thing was that he regained his sanity in middle age and went on to win the Nobel Prize for economics. Many of his mathematician friends killed themselves - perhaps they were already "dead" in Erdos-speak.


Week 4

E. O. Wilson is possibly the greatest living biologist, and his Consilience is his 'theory of everything'. The mind is there, too, as the arbiter of behaviour. It is almost a relief to turn to One Renegade Cell, Professor Weinberg's lucid account of the astounding progress made in understanding cancer.

June 8

Fay Weldon chairs the final selection. The five of us favour three different books: it might be blood on the carpet. But Fay's amiability never wavers. Steven Pinker's astonishing compendium is a late victim. It is the irresistible mathematical eccentricity of Erdos, as told by Hoffman, that gets the vote. Mind has won over matter.

Richard A. Fortey is based at the Natural History Museum, London. He was a judge of this week's Rhone-Poulenc prize.

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