Econstudentlog

Recountings: Conversations with MIT Mathematicians

This post will be brief but I thought that since it’s been a while since I last posted anything and since I just finished reading this book, I wanted to add a few remarks about it here while it was still ‘fresh in my mind’. I’m gradually coming to the conclusion that if I’m to blog all the books I’m reading in the amount of detail I’d ideally like to, I’ll have to read a lot less. This option does not appeal to me; I’d rather provide limited coverage of a book I’ve actually read than not read a book in order to provide more extensive coverage of another book.

Anyway, the book is a rather nice collection of interviews with mathematicians from MIT’s ‘early days’ (in some sense at least – MIT is a rather old institution, but at least some of the people interviewed in this book came along during the days before MIT was what it is today), who talk about the history of the mathematics department of MIT, and other stuff – the people interviewed include an Abel Prize winner and a few people who’ve been members of the Institute for Advanced Study, a former MacArthur Fellow, as well as a guy who used to be on the selection committee for the MacArthur Foundation. All of them are really, really smart, and some of them have lived quite interesting lives. To the extent that these guys aren’t impressive enough on their own, some of them also knew some people most non-mathematicians have probably heard about – this book includes contributions from people who were friends of people like John Nash, Grothendieck, Shannon, Minsky, and Chomsky, and they are people who’ve met and talked to people like John von Neumann, Oppenheimer, Weyl, Heisenberg, and Albert Einstein. They talk a little bit about their work and the history of the mathematics department, but they also talk about other stuff as well; there are various amusing anecdotes along the way (for example one interviewee tells the story about the time he lectured in a gorilla suit at MIT), there are stories about the private parties and social lives of the MIT staff during the fifties (and later), we get some personal stories about mathematicians who fled Europe when the Nazis started to cause trouble, and there are stories about student protests in the late sixties and how they were dealt with – the books spans widely. There was some repetition across the interviews (various people answering similar questions in similar ways), and there was more talk about ‘administrative matters’ than I’d have liked – probably a natural consequence of the fact that a few of them (3? At least three of the contributors..) were former department heads – which is part of why I didn’t give it five stars, but it’s really a quite nice book. I may or may not blog it later in more detail.

January 30, 2015 - Posted by | books, mathematics

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