Tag Archives: Pandora Kitabevi


Because Herman Wouk was going to put physicists in a novel, Richard Feynman advised him to learn calculus: “It’s the language God talks.” I think I know what Feynman meant. Calculus is the means by which we express the laws of the physical universe. This is the universe that, according to the mythology, God brought into existence with such commands as, “Let there be light.” Calculus has allowed us to refine those words of creation from the Biblical account. Credited as a discover of calculus, as well as of physical laws, Isaac Newton was given an epitaph (ultimately not used) by Alexander Pope:

Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night:
God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.

I don’t know, but maybe Steven Strogatz quotes Pope’s words in his 2019 book, Infinite Powers: How Calculus Reveals the Secrets of the Universe. This is where I found out about Wouk’s visit with Feynman. I saw the book recently (Saturday, February 22, 2020) in Pandora Kitabevi here in Istanbul. I looked in the book for a certain topic that was of interest to me, but did not find it; then I found a serious misunderstanding.

book cover: Steven Strogatz, Infinite Powers Continue reading

The Private, Unskilled One

I went into Istanbul’s Pandora Bookshop a month ago, looking for an English translation of War and Peace, since the Garnett translation I had read at college was falling apart. I was told the Oxford World’s Classics edition (with the Maude translation) was coming the next week, and it did come.

Elif Batuman, The Idiot, in Nesin Matematik Köyü, Kayser Dağı Mevkii, Şirince, Selçuk, İzmir, Turkey, 2017.05.18

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This is about G. H. Hardy and Sylvia Plath: Hardy quâ author of A Mathematician’s Apology (1940); Plath, The Bell Jar (1963).

Photo: the Hardy and Plath books

I first read Plath only recently, after encountering The Bell Jar by chance in the Istanbul bookshop called Pandora. After I finished reading it next day in Espresso Lab on İstiklâl, a woman who had earlier been speaking Turkish asked in English to look at the book. She pondered the front and the back before handing the book back to me. When I asked whether she knew of it, she simply said yes. She may not have understood my meaning; but I did not put her English (or my Turkish) to the test. Had she been made curious by the cover, showing a woman applying powder with the aid of a compact mirror? Did that cover accurately reflect the novel?

On an airplane once I was reading a paperback whose cover displayed a painting of ruins beneath the Acropolis of Athens. “I love historical fiction!” gushed a flight attendant. The term might be stretched to cover what I was reading; but it was the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Plato’s Republic.

Plato’s Republic

I had first read Hardy’s Apology in high school, thanks to the suggested reading at the end of Spivak’s Calculus. A couple of weeks ago, I somehow found a blog that took its title from the end of Hardy’s opening paragraph. That paragraph reads:

It is a melancholy experience for a professional mathematician to find himself writing about mathematics. The function of a mathematician is to do something, to prove new theorems, to add to mathematics, and not to talk about what he or other mathematicians have done. Statesmen despise publicists, painters despise art-critics, and physiologists, physicists, or mathematicians have usually similar feelings: there is no scorn more profound, or on the whole more justifiable, than that of the men who make for the men who explain. Exposition, criticism, appreciation, is work for second-rate minds.

The blog was called just that: Second Rate Minds. “We quote Hardy with irony,” says one of the two creators,

because we do not agree with him.

I believe there is great importance in communicating mathematics as widely as possible. I think it is important that children are encouraged to enjoy mathematics so that they might take further interest in the subject. Equally important is the view of mathematics held by the general public. Despite Hardy’s disdain for applications, mathematics nevertheless pervades the modern world and benefits from society valuing its role.

This is all fine; except I wonder if the writer has been corrupted by the same culture that made Hardy into somebody he found himself in disagreement with. This is the culture of judging people against one another, in order to rank them. Hardy gives a hint of this culture in the closing section of his essay:

I cannot remember ever having wanted to be anything but a mathematician. I suppose that it was always clear that my specific abilities lay that way, and it never occurred to me to question the verdict of my elders. I do not remember having felt, as a boy, any passion for mathematics, and such notions as I may have had of the career of a mathematician were far from noble. I thought of mathematics in terms of examinations and scholarships: I wanted to beat other boys, and this seemed to be the way in which I could do so most decisively.

I do not remember just what I thought of Hardy’s Apology in high school. I was at a school for boys, where I won prizes for mathematics and other subjects. I did not wish to emulate Hardy, either in pursuing just one thing, or in trying to beat others at it. Nonetheless, at the end of my freshman year at St John’s College in Annapolis, I bought my own copy of Hardy’s Apology in the College bookshop. The manager remarked that the book had decided her against pursuing mathematics. She had had dreams of doing good for the world; by Hardy’s account, mathematics was about personal glory.

I did want to do mathematics, as I ultimately understood. But this final understanding came after four more years: three in college, and one at large. I was working at a farm when I understood in a dream that I must learn modern mathematics. I cannot say that Hardy had any role in this, one way or other. Still, I would suggest now that, if Hardy does discourage you from pursuing mathematics, this may be just as well. You will have to focus like a laser if you want to do mathematics; you will be judged mercilessly, as mathematical truth is merciless; and you will suffer self-doubt, when it seems that the hardest you can work is still not good enough.

I am sorry that Hardy continued to be preoccupied with comparing himself to others:

I still say to myself when I am depressed, and find myself forced to listen to pompous and tiresome people, ‘Well, I have done one the thing you could never have done, and that is to have collaborated with both Littlewood and Ramanujan on something like equal terms.’

At least Hardy can accept that he was not quite at the level of his two collaborators. The mathematician must guard against all illusions.

In the end, I say, think what you like about Hardy; but give him credit for giving us a window into his life. Reading his essay yet again, I am impressed by the clarity and rhythm of the language, and by the frankness of the writer.

Sylvia Plath reminds me of Hardy. This is not because she ultimately gives up her virginity to a mathematician, at least in her novel. Like Hardy, she appears early on as an unpleasant person.

Plath’s character Esther proposes to Doreen that they ditch a party and have drinks with a man who wears cowboy boots and a lumber shirt. Doreen agrees to go up to Lenny’s apartment, as long as Esther will go. In the apartment, Doreen asks Esther to stick around. Still, Esther slips out; and back at the hotel, when a drunken Doreen pounds on her door, Esther won’t let her in. She allows Doreen to pass out in the corridor, since she won’t remember the incident anyway.

Maybe this was all part of the Girls’ Code, though it would seem to be a violation. Esther did not seem very nice to me. But then, trying to kill yourself is not very nice either, and Esther will do this repeatedly. There is a lot to investigate and contemplate here, including an academic system that squeezed both Plath and Hardy. It is odd that a bell jar is a place where the pressure is taken off. Now I want just to appreciate both Plath and Hardy, for laying themselves bare.

Written January, 2017. Revisited August 27, 2022. Later in 2017, I wrote more about Plath (and a little more about Hardy) in “Women and Men.”

Thinking & Feeling

This essay is written as a distraction from current events, though I make some reference to them. I am prompted by questions of analogy provoked by

  1. the similes of Homer, and

  2. a recent theater review in Harper’s that mentions the parables of Jesus.

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35th Istanbul Film Festival, 2016, part 3

Part 1 | Part 2

Between the composing of parts 1 and 2 of this account came the death of Prince, whose work had inspired Rain the Color of Blue with a Little Red in It. Between the composing of parts 2 and 3 came the release of the four Turkish peace activists, whose imprisonment had given poignancy to The Demons and The Music of Strangers. There is a certain absurdity associated with each event.

Photo of book, Shakyamuni Buddha

Nikkyô Niwano, Shakyamuni Buddha: A Narrative Biography
(Tokyo: Kôsei Publishing Co., 1980; fifth printing, 1989)

On the cover, a modern copy by Ryûsen Miyahara,
owned by Risshô Kôsei-kai, of
“The Nirvana of the Buddha,”
painted in 1086 and owned by temple Kongôbu-ji,
Wakayama Prefecture, Japan

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Nicole at the Golden Horn

The setting was gorgeous. We were atop a hotel (and former convent) opposite the compound of the Italian Consulate—the Italian Embassy, in Ottoman times, before Mustafa Kemal founded the Turkish Republic and moved the capital to Ankara. We looked out over old trees. The street just below us was closed to cars; off to the right it became a stairway and a narrow passage up to İstiklâl Caddesi. Beyond the trees of the Consulate were the Golden Horn and Seraglio Point, with the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara beyond. As night fell, electric lights illuminated the Seraglio itself—Topkapı Palace—along with the Hagia Sophia.
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Thoreau by the Aegean

In a session of the 1986–7 senior laboratory at St John’s College in Santa Fe, for reasons that I do not recall, our tutor asked us students whether we had any heroes: for it was said that young people of the day no longer had heroes. None of the students at the table named a hero. I myself refrained from telling how I had once named a hero, when asked to do so in a high-school French class. This hero was the Buddha.

In recent times, I have listed my favorite writers as Somerset Maugham, Robert Pirsig, and R.G. Collingwood. I might add Charlotte Brontë and Mary Midgley to the list. I cannot add the Buddha, because he is not a writer. If my list were of writers and thinkers, I still could not add the Buddha: I cannot know him or any other thinker well enough, except through his own writing. But now I would add Henry David Thoreau. Continue reading


This article is based on quotations from three writers, of three different nationalities, who share a spirit with which I am in sympathy:

“The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”
“The real cycle you’re working on is the cycle called ‘yourself.’ ”
“I thought that the democratic system was not only a form of government but a school of political experience coextensive with the nation.”

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