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The Shape of a Life by Shing-Tung Yau. Book review

February 7, 2019

Book cover for the shape of a life showing a white complex geometric shape on a black background

Mathematician Shing-Tung Yau is known for developing a mathematical foundation for string theory. By considering the universe in terms of geometry Yau has provided new insight into black holes, as well as the stability of the universe.

I picked up The Shape of a Life for review because I was intrigued by Yau’s work and the part his cultural and disadvantaged background had to play in his passion for geometry and the way he forged conceptual developments in a field I had considered completely uninspiring at school.

The shape of a life is well balanced in that it gives enough of a flavour of Shing-Tung Yau’s work to pique a non-mathematician’s interest without inducing mental overheating and provide and interesting human story.

As I have already admitted, geometry appeared pointless, little more than something you had to do in order to jump through the hoops required for secondary school exams. Getting a peek into Yau’s world made me realise geometry’s possible applications and the potential beauty of the mathematics which really gets to grips with shapes, particularly when applied to conceptual advances in physics which examines the fabric of the universe.

But this is also a book about Yau the man, the trials and tribulations of his early life and, as a successful academic, his experience of the difficulties of navigating the complex politics of academia while pursuing his life-long passion.

Yau’s mother is an inspiration for any mother out there who strives to see their children surpass them. Although I should think few would sacrifice as much as she did, by choosing not to farm her children out to earn a living which would have made her comfortable, but which would have prevented them from reaching their potential.

Yau reveals himself to be an independent thinker and intellectual sponge from an early age. Unfortunately the former quality cost him dear in crucial entrance exams for a school which would have positioned him much more quickly into the right academic stream. Exiled from mainland China where academics were denigrated rather than respected, Yau’s intellectual father could not achieve his potential earning power due to lack of recognised qualifications in Hong Kong. The lack of money meant Yau could not initially be educated as well as he should have been. Reliant on his own form of logic, Yau could simply not make the grade for scholarships to the right sort of schools. But it was this impeccable logic, his curiosity and the right people finally appreciating his potential, which finally set him on the right path. This portion of the book makes an interesting read to anyone who has struggled to fit into the standard conceptual processes that are the staple of an education system.

Once at university and from a background which considers education something of wonder, not a backdrop to extensive partying, Yau threw himself into every lecture going, absorbing every detail, until he found his calling.

Before long Yau had achieved his dream of being an academic. Although his achievements make for an interesting read. His constant need to pick his way through the academic political minefield is fascinating. Yau comes over not as an instigator of intrigue, but someone who has learned to spot the signs of trouble over the years and then attempt to circumnavigate them. Not an easy thing to do in a competitive field where publishing your conceptual advances first is the name of the game and in fighting would appear to be common place.

In all this is a book which introduced me in an entertaining way to a field of mathematics I would not normally have given a second thought to, but also to a man spanning two very different cultures and finding a way to bring them both together.

The Shape of a Life was courtesy of Yale University Press via NetGalley.

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