Professor Joseph Weiler, who is facing criminal charges in France for posting a mildly negative book review on a web site he edits, has asked supporters to search out and email him copies of even more negative reviews (presumably of academic writing), to submit to the court as evidence that this sort of thing happens all the time.
The review I’ll be emailing is a classic of the genre. It was written by Andre Weil, one of the most influential mathematicians of the twentieth century, and possibly the most erudite person who ever lived. Here’s how I described Weil shortly after his death:
His profound grasp of mathematical history made him seem all the more a part of that history; he was the natural heir to the tradition he cherished. In paper after paper, Weil exhibited his own ideas as natural extensions of the foundations long since laid by great masters like Fermat, Euler, and Gauss in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
Steeped in the history of mathematics and the history of civilization, he was thoroughly a scholar. He spoke and read multiple languages (besides his native French, Weil was comfortable in Sanskrit, Latin, Greek, English, German, Portuguese and probably more), wrote poetry and literary criticism, mastered the Bhaghavad Gita and the Upanishads, and was renowned for the clarity and directness of his prose. He spoke incisively and knowledgeably about philosophy, painting, music and architecture.
Weil’s presence was enhanced, as is the case with many great geniuses, by his personal eccentricities and the legends they inspired—the strangely guttural French accent, the acerbic wit, the exacting standards, the complete inability to tolerate any form of stupidity (quite a burden for a man compared to whom almost everyone else in the world was basically a dunce), and the mischievous vanity. These traits live on in his writings and in the oral history that is lovingly preserved by mathematicians worldwide.
In 1973, an associate professor at Princeton University had the temerity to write a biography of Weil’s revered Fermat, and the bad luck to draw Weil as a reviewer. Weil begins by reminding us that “in order to write even a tolerably good book about Fermat, a modicum of abilities is required”. He then lists these abilities:
- ordinary accuracy
- the ability to express simple ideas in plain English
- some knowledge of French
- some knowledge of Latin
- some historical sense
- some familiarity with the work of Fermat’s contemporaries and of his successors
- knowledge and sensitivity to mathematics
Weil then proceeds to consider these requisites one by one, and to argue—via annotated quotations from the book under review—that the author apparently possesses none of them. The full text is here.
For its incisiveness, its acerbicism, and the towering authority of its author, I nominate this as the most devastating book review in the history of academic journalism. Can you suggest another contender?