Steven Nadis: Shape of a Life

For this column, NASW book editor Lynne Lamberg asks NASW authors to tell how they came up with the idea for their book, developed a proposal, found an agent and publisher, funded and conducted research, and put the book together. She also asks what they wish they had known before they began working on their book, what they might do differently the next time, and what tips they can offer aspiring authors. She then edits the A part of that Q&A to produce the author reports you see here.

Publication of NASW members’ reports in Advance Copy does not constitute NASW’s endorsement of their books. NASW welcomes your comments, and hopes this column stimulates productive discussions.

Cover: Shape of a Life

Cover: Shape of a Life


Shing-Tung Yau and Steve Nadis (NASW member)
Yale University Press, February 19, 2019, Hardcover & digital, $28
ISBN 10: 0300235909; ISBN-13: 978-0300235906

Nadis reports:

This is the autobiography of Harvard geometer Shing-Tung Yau, the winner of the Fields Medal, the National Medal of Science, a MacArthur Fellowship, and other awards. Yau is most famous for proving the Calabi Conjecture, which gave rise to a large class of geometric spaces subsequently called “Calabi-Yau manifolds.” These manifolds play a central role in string theory—an attempt to unify the forces of nature into a single framework—and may provide the shape of the universe’s hidden, “extra” dimensions posited by that theory.

Steven Nadis

Steven Nadis

Yau has made important contributions to many areas of math and physics, but I wouldn’t have undertaken this autobiography if he had led an otherwise uneventful life. That is decidedly not the case. He was born in China during the Communist revolution. His family fled to Hong Kong where they lived under conditions of dire poverty. When Yau was 14, his father died, making the family’s financial situation even worse.

He started tutoring in mathematics to earn money—an experience that added to his appreciation of the discipline. He soon resolved to make a career in that field, if at all possible. Through a combination of luck and talent, he landed a generous scholarship for graduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Yau arrived in Berkeley in the fall of 1969 with less than $100 in his pocket, enrolling in every class he could. His career quickly took off: Within a few months, he had two papers accepted in prestigious math journals.

I met him for the first time in 2006. A friend of his, a Cornell physicist I knew from articles I’d previously written, told me that Yau was looking for someone with whom to coauthor a book. I was busy at the time and almost said no but then decided to meet with Yau since his office at Harvard was just a five-minute bike ride from my home in Cambridge. Looking back, I’m glad I made time for that conversation. THE SHAPE OF A LIFE is the fourth book we’ve written together. We’re already making plans for a fifth.

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Feb. 20, 2019

2019 AIP Science Communication Awards