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Recountings: Conversations with MIT Mathematicians

Joel Segel, editor
A K Peters
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Michael Berg
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We mathematicians are incorrigible gossips; of this there is no doubt. Sometimes it’s pretty malicious stuff, but usually it’s of a far more harmless variety, more along the lines of stories told about members of a huge family that doesn’t resemble any other family — or the rest of homo sapiens for that matter. I guess physicists qualify as distant cousins, but, well, not really: even the mildest among us quickly moves to reach for the nearest heavy object — perhaps a copy of Abramovich and Stegun — to use as a corrective on the skull of the latest quantum mechanic to cut off an infinity and sneer “it works, doesn’t it?” at our screams of objection. Yes, we are ultimately only understood only by (and tolerable only to) each other, and it would be disingenuous to suggest we’d want it any other way.

So it is that there is a growing library of books comprising part of our subculture’s collective mythology and sociology, or rather (if we’re honest), our sources for gossipy tales, tall and otherwise.The book under review, Recountings: Conversations with MIT Mathematicians, qualifies in spades. It’s full of really good stuff, to borrow a phrase from the Feynman opus (and even this most mathematical of theoretical physicists was know to say nasty things about mathematics! Can we trust any physicist, really?).

The beautifully produced book under review includes offerings by Singer, Mattuck, Rogers, Strang, Hoffman (R.I.P.), Toomre, Kleiman, Greenspan, Kostant, Artin, Kleitman, and Helgason, as well as material about Levinson by his widow, Zipporah. In point of fact these offerings are in the form of interviews, much along the lines of the way Mathematical People and More Mathematical People were set up — and equally successfully. It all reads very well, and is incredibly fascinating, especially to some one of my age, who sports n degrees of separation, with 1 ≤ n ≤ 3, with m figures in the book, m ≥ 3. Given that I always have been something of an asocial loner, I’m sure that for many of my contemporaries, n tends to be smaller and m larger: a lot of resonance, in any case.

Thus, immediately upon receiving the book in the mail, I devoured parts of the interviews with Kleiman and Mike Artin, not only because of a lot of recent activity on my part in algebraic geometry of the Grothendieck variety (Hah!), but also because of my love for all things algebraic, which goes back to my youth and my reading, first, about Emil Artin, in van der Waerden’s classic, and then books by Emil Artin, leaving an indelible impression. And once you start looking through Recountings you can’t put it down. Kostant’s stuff, for example, is fantastic. It should make all of us want to become Lie theorists. His remarks about Chevalley’s 1946 classic, Theory of Lie Groups, moved me to take down my dusty copy of this great book from my shelves, only to find that, many years ago, I had not only read parts of it, but covered the corresponding margins with notes. Déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra put it. I wish I’d remembered it better.

Then there is the high frequency of occurrences of the late Gian-Carlo Rota throughout the book. And Norbert Wiener, for that matter. And this is obviously exactly how it should be, given the impact these men had on MIT and on mathematics (combinatorics and philosophy, for the former, Fourier analysis for the latter, to understate both cases).

Well, what else need one say? It’s a terrifically interesting book, and just plain fun. I’ll read it again and again. (Oh yeah, I forgot: there are lots of cool pictures, too!)

Michael Berg is Professor of Mathematics at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, CA.

The table of contents is not available.


akirak's picture

This is a fascinating history of mathematics at MIT covering the period of post WWII to the present. It gives a detailed account of how mathematics at MIT was converted from a service department for engineers to the high class research department. This is a book for the layman and also for academics who work in such environments. Many mathematics departments throughout the world could do well be investing in this book and emulating the work done at MIT.

The book has a different style to mathematics books for the layman, in the sense that it is based on a collection of interviews with 12 members of MIT and the widow of Norman Levison. The author highlights some well known stories about the men (apart from that first interview, all the other 12 interviews are with men) in mathematics at MIT such as how they were hooked into the institute from other organisations. Additionally the book highlights the arguments within the department between pure and applied mathematicians. My main reservations regarding the book are:

  • It contains no index. This is a serious omission.
  • The book does not read well in places and it should have been more thoroughly revised.

Generally the book was a good joy to read and definitely worth buying.