Reading Assignment I

I mean how could you get them all to stay still?

-Billy Collins, “Cosmology”

Remember Bertrand Russell and his infinite stack of turtles? So does Billy Collins, whose poem “Cosmology” appeared in the September 5 issue of The New Yorker.

Over at Nautilus, Trevor Quirk addresses “The Problem With Science Writing” and the difficulties of accurately and appealingly communicating scientific ideas to the public without being overly reductive (writing this blog has given me some first-hand experience of these difficulties).

One of the works Quirk brings up is David Foster Wallace’s Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity, a book that I read at the very outset of my graduate study and about which I have very conflicted feelings. On the one hand, I am a big fan of Wallace’s writing, the book’s attempt to explain technical material in a way that is both accessible and integrated into a historical narrative is admirable, and there is some good stuff in the book (particularly the material early on about the Greeks). On the other hand, the book contains a huge number of technical errors and misleading statements, a fact made more egregious by the at times irritatingly arrogant tone of the prose. It sometimes feels as if Wallace is saying, “This is really complicated stuff, and not many people can truly understand it. Let me explain it to you.” before getting something completely wrong. It is a testament to Wallace’s writing and the book’s ambitions that, despite this, I still would not necessarily attempt to dissuade someone from reading it.

Really, though, you should just go read Infinite Jest.


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