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Angles of Reflection

Intersecting Worlds Collide

By Jane Maduram

Staff Writer

Written by Joan Richards

Published by W. H. Freeman & Company


There are few books that investigate the intellectual and emotional underpinnings of researchers. While the images of the nerd and the geek have been redefined in popular culture, their appearances in literature have remained rare and, quite frankly, largely unfavorable. Even if they are featured in a novel, the emphasis of the book will probably rest on an unsavory professor’s seamy side, a scientist’s emotional instability, or the ever-fascinating world of college politics and tenure battles. This autobiographical book admittedly starts with a tenure battle, but it goes on to achieve a surprisingly deep commentary on the way the inherently multiple personas of a researcher conflict and are resolved in life.

At the beginning of Angles of Reflection, author Joan Richards, a professor of science history at Brown University, brutally falls against the “publish or perish” phenomena. Refused a tenure promotion due to her failure to publish a second book, Richards gets two fellowships so she can have time to write. While she is on her first fellowship, however, her son gets seizures. And during her stay at her second fellowship, in Germany, the same son has a protracted problem with a broken arm. Both experiences leave her disillusioned with the medical system.

While Richards’ encounters with doctors take up the bulk of the book, its most fascinating sections are those in which she applies the subject of her book to her life. Richards is a science historian and, at one point, writes about why she felt called to this topic. “Newton also understood that beyond all ... was an absolute world -- calm, clear, and undisturbed ... at times Newton positively glowed with the peace of knowing things that were so true ... I am of a different world but as it often had in the past, my work with Victorian mathematicians served to tranquilize and reassure my mind on a very deep level.”

The book that Richards was hoping to write during her two fellowships concerned De Morgan, one of the early founders of probability. He, like Newton, believed in absolutes: time, space, and probabilities were things that they believed to be constant. Perhaps more intriguingly was that they held life as well to be absolute. Leibnez, on the other hand, held things to be “purely relative.” While Newton and De Morgan believed relative time and space to be reflections of human frailty, Leibnez believed relativity to be the foundation of life.

Richards agrees at first with De Morgan’s application of mathematical philosophy to life, but her experience with her son’s illnesses forces her to reevaluate her position. Her intellectual, mathematical philosophy is forced to bend to an emotional, personal tragedy. While digging through archives to find how De Morgan coped with the deaths of several of his children, she realizes that the position that De Morgan holds can only be achieved by trivializing life itself. “The more I pondered ... the more I saw my [Victorian] mathematicians trying to grab the truth, to control by knowing it ... Their mathematical work was magnificent, but they had only been able to sustain it by disparaging the relative and consigning it to their servants and their wives.”

The way in which Richards’ personal problems affect her professional work and vice versa is written beautifully. There is a very real interplay between the research she carries out, her conflicts with the medical system, and the way in which she views the world. At times, Richards is susceptible to over-analysis; the conclusion in particular is dissatisfying in that it resolves the themes of personal identity, professional identity, and the Victorian mindset in pieces, not as a whole. These are minor quibbles, however --this is definitely one of the more intellectually satisfying memoirs I have read, and I look forward to reading Richards’ next book.