This is the 17th installment of our series An Engineer Reads a Novel.
This spring, I was enchanted by the story of mathematician Karen Uhlenbeck, awarded the Norwegian Abel Prize in 2019 for her work on bubbles, who at 76 still relishes the “technical obstacle,” “secrets,” and “mystery” of “the poetry of bubbles.”1 At the podium to accept the Abel—the first woman to do so—following an introduction listing her accomplishments, Uhlenbeck admitted, “From the perspective of my late seventies, I find myself as a young mathematician sort of impressive, too.”
Katherine, the protagonist of Catherine Chung’s new novel, The Tenth Muse, is also taking stock of a career in mathematics and a life lived in pursuit of “secret things.” After decades in the field, she’s on the brink of a breakthrough. Like Uhlenbeck, she’s unguardedly proud of her achievements, and her self-confidence is refreshingly powerful.
Katherine narrates formative years in which she was consistently underestimated and misunderstood. The novel is concerned with the costs as well as the benefits of her ambition. She lists “what I most wanted for myself: a sense of importance, a sense of belonging, a history I could root myself to and claim.” That this language and longing could refer to more than just mathematics hints at the pleasures of discovery in The Tenth Muse.
The novel begins three times: first, with the story of the tenth muse, who did “not wish to sing in the voices of men”; then with a celebration of mathematical (and other) puzzles—“There is nothing as intriguing as a locked door”; and finally, with an introduction to our narrator: “The first thing I remember being said of me with any consistency was that I was intelligent, or quick—and I recognized even then that it was a comment leveled at me with disapproval as much as admiration.” The two prologues serve to ground Katherine’s voice in history and myth, but they also saddle her with the baggage that comes with such legacies.
She even offers her own disclaimer before, at last, introducing herself: “I suppose I should warn you that I tell a story like a woman: looping into myself, interrupting.” The “warning” undercuts her confidence in her intelligence, much as my female engineering students sometimes preface their questions with: “This might be a dumb question, but …” or “I don’t want to waste the class’s time, but …” I, myself, have often tried to couch my comments to rooms of male engineers in generously diplomatic ways, all to avoid the horror of being seen as too assertive, too threateningly competent.
As a child, Katherine is indeed intelligent and quick, in a way that others find disruptive. A teacher will not give credit for work Katherine can compute in her head and is clearly “frustrated” by Katherine’s quickness, concerned that it “makes the other children feel bad.” This further alienates Katherine, an ambitious young woman whose white American father is remote, and whose Chinese-born mother is haunted by her own past.
Katherine’s interest in the beauty of mathematics begins as curiosity about the natural world, an attention to lightning and trees. Her mother, she says, “never instilled in me a sense of family history or tradition, but she did give me a reverence, an awe for nature—and the belief that I could get closer to it by learning how it worked.” Looking at the trees, “I was overtaken by a revelatory feeling—of understanding, of being part of something huge. … It felt like doing math—like sensing all the things I couldn’t see, but knowing they were there.” This sense persists when young Katherine builds a radio with her father, establishing a connection to a wider world that remains distant and mysterious.
Collegiate rivalries and betrayals challenge Katherine and take a toll on her ability to trust others, but do not deter her from pursuing the beauty of mathematics. The casual slights and disrespect Katherine absorbs will be familiar to many who have navigated the STEM academy as members of under-represented groups; the cruelty and toxicity that may shock some readers will have others nodding in recognition.
This world is well observed and captured in Chung’s telling details. Katherine’s awareness of her own otherness rings vividly true. At her first mathematics conference, “there were in fact two other women … but by unspoken agreement, we avoided each other. This was pure instinct, an understanding that by being seen with each other we would draw attention to ourselves as women, and that would do us more harm than good.”
The prose itself is rather unmusical, in Katherine’s drily reported retrospective. She recalls, of one exchange, “I explained to him that our high school simply didn’t have as advanced a curriculum as his, and I felt ashamed.” This flat report is meant to describe dialogue with a romantic crush.
Too often, we are told, not shown, how Katherine feels and what she thinks. “I laughed … but the laugh was edged with hurt. I wanted people to think I was smart, but I wanted [him] to see me as more.” Even things that are clear from the context are overexplained: “I wanted them to see that my ambition and hunger were no different from theirs, but that my will—and my nerve—were stronger.” This reader’s preference for subtext, subtlety, and scene made these matter-of-fact declarations unsatisfying.
“The Tenth Muse” finds surprising places to go—not just in its physical locations, but also in the unexpected ways Chung forges connections between characters.
Entering graduate school at MIT in the 1960s, Katherine “decided [she] wanted to be seen,” in “defiance” of those who sought to diminish her. That she soon falls in love with a charismatic professor is not particularly surprising, yet there’s nuance to the relationship as it’s depicted in The Tenth Muse. The lovers betray and use and hurt each other—but they also, clearly, love each other, and neither is well equipped to reconcile academic and emotional ambitions. When her peers ostracize her and assume she’s sleeping her way to the top of the math world, Katherine, naively, is shocked by the gossip. “I stood in the shadows, ears burning with humiliation.”
Singular among her contemporaries, Katherine seeks “kinship” through examining “the stories of [those] who came before her.” These include the myth of the tenth muse, who “preferred to sing her songs herself,” and whose sisters scold her: “Don’t you know … that the price of your dearest wish is always everything you have?” Katherine pairs this tale with that of Princess Kwan-Yin, who also pursued her own path, one of selfless devotion to others; she was unwilling to marry or to receive rewards while others suffered. Katherine’s twin foundational myths are tales of women whose ambitions exacted high costs.
And her mathematical mythology is no less tragic. There’s Hypatia, the Greek philosopher-mathematician who was “married” to her work but accused of witchcraft and eventually killed by “an angry Christian mob.” Then there’s the horrifying “fairy-tale” of Ramanujan, a prodigy whose notebooks persuaded Cambridge mathematician G. H. Hardy to sponsor and encourage him, but whose health and well-being suffered in damp England. He was considered “a novelty act, expected to explain over and over again how he came to be so clever, while his audience patted themselves on the back for having discovered him.”
Katherine finds a potential mentor (and another “fairy story”) in Maria Meyer, who was thwarted in math and physics before switching to chemistry; she won the Nobel as Katherine was starting grad school. (The real-life headline read, “San Diego Housewife Wins Nobel Prize.”) Meyer says just what Katherine needs to hear: “I got to do science, and that was the most important thing.” She explains: “I could have spent my time fighting the unfairness of it all, or I could dedicate my time to science. There wasn’t time for both.”
Mathematician Emmy Noether holds special fascination for Katherine. “It was during her time that we began to anticipate how complex things might get without yet being entrenched in that complexity—like standing on the brink of chaos,” she enthuses. “And what company she stood with, on that very brink! It was the time of Bohr, Heisenberg, Wittgenstein, Gödel, Einstein, and Turing. Quantum mechanics was being born, as was modern atomic theory, relativity, the computer, the uncertainty principle, the black hole, and the nuclear bomb.”
She continues: “It was an exciting time, but everything was in disarray—there was the rubble of creation, the rubble of destruction. We were at the heights, from which we imagined we could see everything—not just what we knew, but all the possibilities as well—a theory explaining everything, and its inverse: the collapse of science, of language itself.”
And then, of course, “Emmy Noether was the first of the mathematicians in Göttingen to lose her job. … Göttingen, that haven, that bastion of mathematics and science, was overtaken by Nazis.”
Yes, politics has corrupted the pure halls of science. (By putting “bastion” and “haven” in the voice of marginalized Katherine, Chung highlights the way that even those within the culture of STEM most affected by its innate biases and politics have swallowed the myth of its objectivity.2) World War II is an inflection point for the novel, what a topologist might call a saddle point: here, the novel intersects itself, with multiple story strands passing through the same locations in space and time.
During the war, Peter Hall, Katherine’s longtime lover and collaborator, is recruited to Los Alamos. When she meets him years later, Katherine understands this as a personal choice in response to the death of his brothers in the war. She knows Peter “believed … the only way to achieve a lasting peace was to develop as many weapons as possible and to use them to enforce the peace.” The hubris of scientists who believe they will be able to constrain the applications of the technologies they develop, who abdicate their own responsibility for consequences they didn’t personally intend, is implicit here. Katherine recognizes the potentially dangerous “innocence” in Peter’s rationalization of his work.
World War II takes on new resonance as we learn that Katherine’s parents met because of the war. So, when Katherine and her friend Henrietta—Henry—move to Germany on research fellowships, the very landscape teems with secrets and the challenges of wrestling with a problematic past.
It’s compelling and propulsive, this race to discover the invisible truths: there is nothing so intriguing as a locked door.
Germany also liberates Katherine and Henry, or, at least, they tell each other it has: “The truth is I feel freer here in Germany than I ever did back home,” Katherine reflects; Henry, a Californian with Chinese heritage, says: “We’re used to everyone thinking we’re foreign in America, but here it’s actually true.” Henry exploits this freedom: “She acted on her own desires, without pause or second-guessing … looking at me sideways with a wicked gleam.” Katherine, meanwhile, finds “easy camaraderie” and discovers she “actually liked parties,” though, again, we are told this, not shown scenes of Katherine with her metaphorical hair down.
Henry is working on a book project that collects folktales and fairy-tales from around the world. “Every culture, she said, seemed to have a Cinderella story, a Little Red Riding Hood story, a Snow White story. ‘They’re not just stories about rags to riches, powerless to powerful,’ she said. ‘They’re also really sobering critiques of what we value in women.’” This comment is rather on the nose and self-aware. Henry makes the connection to the tenth muse and to Princess Kwan-Yin. “You know she’s a religious figure in China, right?” Henry asks Katherine, in dialogue that doesn’t quite sound like “easy camaraderie.”
And it’s in Germany that The Tenth Muse transforms from the retrospective of a mathematician whose gender and ethno-cultural background make her an outlier—a rather flat recounting of her education, ambition, and romantic development—to a kind of detective story about her family’s past. Wartime secrets long buried are disinterred, sometimes via conveniently timed expository monologues, and sometimes (more satisfyingly) through Katherine’s own deductive work. Suddenly, the emotions that had been weeded out from the first half of the book are in bloom, entrained into a tale of wartime romance, encoded notebooks, and secrecy.
It is the stuff of fairy-tales: An infant found in a field, known as “the Baby Who Never Smiled” and also “the Baby Who Never Cries.” A young girl in China whose family members sew gold into their blankets as they prepare to flee from the “dwarf-bandits” of the Japanese army. Men who claim to love and liberate the women that they abuse and imprison.
The story expands, transforms, and in the end comes together “as easily as a puzzle, as cleanly as a proof.” It’s compelling and propulsive, this race to discover the invisible truths: there is nothing so intriguing as a locked door.
And the novel’s language gains music, at last. A mathematical riddle about lovers, locks, and keys is a beautiful refrain. Chung’s sentences lyrically describe the losses of World War II: “Subtract the candlesticks and the jewelry. Subtract the piano from the living room, subtract their mother’s favorite songs. Then subtract the mother, bent with worry. … Subtract their woolen slippers, their mismatched mittens, the paintings on the walls. Subtract the walls.”
Katherine loves math, and she also loves thinking of herself as a lone explorer on the frontiers of the known. We in STEM have often persuaded ourselves of our identities as pioneers, with frequently inspiring but sometimes ruinous consequences:3
To write a proof or discover a new object … is not the same as creating or inventing a truth: it is more like being the first to arrive at a truth. And yet it is still a creative act, one that requires your imagination to arrive at a previously unknown understanding. … It is something like designing and building a spacecraft, figuring out the necessary path you need to chart through space, and flying to some location you don’t yet know exists.
I appreciated these lines, even as I wished that Chung’s Katherine were as interested in exploring her own interior emotions, as capable of lyricism regarding human interaction. The Tenth Muse finds surprising places to go—not just in its physical locations, in the US, Europe, and Asia, but also in the unexpected ways Chung forges connections between characters. Katherine’s obsession with uncovering “secret things” compels her to discover these locations and connections, to find the missing parts of her own story. And in this passion to understand her own origins, Katherine’s fiercely defended singularity coexists with something profoundly universal.
- Siobhan Roberts, “In Bubbles, She Sees a Mathematical Universe,” New York Times, April 8, 2019. ↩
- For further discussion of this issue, see: Jenn Stroud Rossmann, “Science and the Wolf,” Public Books, April 19, 2017. ↩
- See, for instance: Jenn Stroud Rossmann, “Too Bad About the Trees,” Public Books, June 2, 2016. ↩