Prime Obsession and the Strangeness of the Author

I spent most of last weekend pleasureably engrossed in John Derbyshire’s new book, Prime Obsession. It is a historical and mathematical exploration of the Riemann hypothesis. The book is very good and when I finish it I may return to it here. But what this weblog entry is about are the strange assumptions we often make about authors we know nothing about.

The dust jacket copy mentioned that Derbyshire writes an online column, so on Monday I decided to look it up via Google. Sure enough I found his website with a complete list of columns and books. Most of his web journalism page links to columns he wrote for National Review Online and this is where the initial shock came in. How can this man be writing for a journal whose politics are, in my opinion, verging on the crazy end of the conservative spectrum? Somehow I’d unconciously made some assumptions about Mr. Derbyshire without having any evidence to back them up, since there is no mention of political orientations in Prime Obsession. For a brief hour I felt like I had been had. But then calmer thoughts prevailed, I read a few of the columns, and reached the conclusion that he can really write well.