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Scientists' Nightstand: Keith Devlin

Greg Ross

Best known to many as National Public Radio's "Math Guy," Keith Devlin is executive director of the Center for the Study of Language and Information and a consulting professor in the Department of Mathematics at Stanford University. His most recent books include The Millennium Problems: The Seven Greatest Unsolved Mathematical Puzzles of Our Time (Basic Books, 2002) and The Math Instinct: Why You're a Mathematical Genius (Along with Lobsters, Birds, Cats, and Dogs) (Thunder's Mouth Press, 2005).

Could you tell us a bit about yourself? Keith DevlinClick to Enlarge Image

For the first 20 years of my professional life as a mathematician, I followed a fairly traditional path of university teaching and mainstream mathematics research, but during the 15 years that followed my interests have broadened to consider the mental activity of mathematical thinking and the way it fits in with—and can perhaps be made to fit in with—other forms of thinking. Some mathematicians are primarily problem solvers, and others are theory builders, although few fall completely into one camp. I have always tended toward the big-picture, theory-building side, which perhaps explains why I have written so many books, 24 at the last count. On several occasions, what began as a research paper ended up as a book. One of the main influences on my deciding to become a mathematician was a pair of wonderful expository books on math by W. W. [Walter Warwick] Sawyer that I read as a teenager, and remembering how those books turned me on to math has provided a lot of the motivation for my own efforts in trying to bring mathematical ideas to a broader audience than I can reach in the university classroom.

What books are you currently reading (or have you just finished reading) for your work or for pleasure? Why did you choose them, and what do you think of them?

Most of the books I read these days are either sent to me in prepublication form by publishers who want me to write a note to go on the cover, or else magazines that want me to write a review. The last dozen or so books I've read all came to me that way. Since I did not choose those books, I won't pass on their titles. Sometimes I find myself at odds with the rest of the world in the books I like. For instance, I've tried several times to read Jared Diamond's Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel (W. W. Norton, 1997), because the subject sounds so fascinating, but each time I've rapidly become bored and given up. The same thing happened many years ago with Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach (Basic Books, 1979), another Pulitzer winner. On the other hand, I was definitely in the mainstream with my enjoyment of Steven Pinker's bestseller The Language Instinct (W. Morrow, 1994). Not sure what this says other than that tastes vary and different things work for different people.

When and where do you usually read (specific location, time of day, etc.)?

I spend so much time reading papers and journal articles—let's leave aside the mountains of reports that land on my university administrator's desk each day—and so much time simply "doing math" and working on my own writing that I read far fewer books than I would like. I do a fair amount of traveling in my job, and airport waiting lounges and airplane seats provide a great opportunity to do some serious reading. At night, I generally take a science or mathematics magazine or a book to bed and read for up to 30 minutes before falling asleep.

Who are your favorite writers (fiction, nonfiction or poetry)? Why?

David Lodge for fiction. As an expat Brit living in the United States, I find he writes about my world—academia—in a way I can really relate to. Bill Bryson for nonfiction. His travelogues show amazing powers of observation into everyday life. It probably says a lot about me that my favorites here are both humorous authors. My favorite poem is Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," as it sums up perfectly my approach to life.

What are the three best books you've ever read? Explain.

I don't really have a top three, but let me list the first three that come immediately to mind. Leon Uris's Exodus (Doubleday, 1958), which I read as a teenager, because the author carried me along as if I were present during one of the greatest human dramas of my lifetime. Tracy Kidder's The Soul of a New Machine (Little, Brown, 1981), because the author brings to life the essence of great design and what it takes to produce it. And Lance Armstrong's It's Not About the Bike (Putnam, 2000), because it is a supremely human story about how one man came back from being on the verge of death through cancer to establishing himself as arguably the greatest sportsman of all time. None of these three would be classified as "great literature," a lot of which I like. But they are, I would argue, great books.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

This has to be W. W. Sawyer's Prelude to Mathematics (Penguin, 1955). This book, together with another Sawyer book, Mathematician's Delight (Penguin, 1943), was pivotal in making me decide to become a mathematician. Although the author's 1950s writing style comes across as stilted today (I still have my original Pelican paperback copies), for me, reading them as a teenager in the early 1960s, every page sang as Sawyer brought advanced mathematics to life.

Name three books you want to read but haven't gotten to yet.

I can't. When I get to the stage of wanting to read a book, I do so.

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

I would love it if kids aged around 10 to 16 would read my own book Life by the Numbers (Wiley, 1998), which tries to convey the relevance of mathematics in today's world.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

For the true science-phobe, I would recommend K. C. Cole's The Universe and the Teacup (Harcourt Brace, 1998). For the nonscientist who occasionally reads popular science, I would suggest Ursula Goodenough's The Sacred Depths of Nature (Oxford University Press, 1998). And of course my own recent book The Math Instinct is aimed at this audience.

Name one book in your discipline that you would recommend for scientists outside your field. Explain your choice.

It's the oldest of my own popular mathematics books, but I still get emails and letters from readers who say my book Mathematics: The New Golden Age (Penguin, 1988) really showed them what modern mathematics is all about.

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