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Scientists' Nightstand: Ian Stewart

Greg Ross

Ian Stewart is professor of mathematics at Warwick University and director of its Mathematics Awareness Centre. He has published more than 60 books and is a frequent contributor to newspapers and magazines in Europe and the United States. He serves as the mathematics consultant for New Scientist and for 10 years wrote the monthly "Mathematical Recreations" column in Scientific American. His most recent book is Why Beauty Is Truth (Basic Books, 2007).Ian StewartClick to Enlarge Image

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I'm 61, which is a sobering thought. My wife, Avril, and I have two sons. My main interests outside my job are science fiction and painting, and we both enjoy Egyptology and geology. We both travel quite a bit, almost always together.

For my day job I'm a professor of mathematics at the University of Warwick, in England—it's in Coventry, not Warwick; it would take too long to explain why. My research area is "dynamical systems"—systems whose state changes over time according to specific rules. The traditional applications of these ideas have been to the physical sciences—physics, chemistry, astronomy, engineering and so on—but the "hot area" nowadays is mathematical biology. I'm especially interested in the effects of symmetry on pattern formation, and the dynamics of networks of interconnected systems. At the moment I'm working on the vestibular system—the semicircular canals in the ears that give us our sense of balance.

Unlike most colleagues, I no longer teach undergraduates. Instead, the other half of my work is "public awareness of science," making science and math accessible to nonspecialists. This involves writing (books, magazines, newspapers), broadcasting (mostly radio, some TV) and public lectures (for instance, I recently gave four lectures in Malta).

My main activity in public awareness of science is writing popular science books—I've written about 25 of these (plus a whole lot of other stuff). Details are on my Web site. And I also write science fiction—two novels with Jack Cohen and about 20 short stories, most recently in Nature Physics. And some of my popular science books have SF elements, notably the three Science of Discworld books with Terry Pratchett and Jack Cohen, and Flatterland (Perseus, 2001).

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?

Erik Hornung, The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife (Cornell University Press, 1999). Avril and I have just come back from a tour of the Valley of the Kings, in Egypt, which visited every tomb that's not actually full of rocks, except for KV-10, which is being used to store artifacts found in the newly discovered tomb KV-63. Our group got into many tombs that are normally kept closed to the public, and at least twice we were the only nonarchaeologists to have been allowed in. The tombs there are Late Kingdom, and many of them have extensive reliefs and inscriptions from texts such as the Book of Gates and the Book of Caverns. I'm trying to find out what we saw and what its significance was to the ancient Egyptians. This book was recommended by another member of our group, and it's extremely good as a starting point.

Stephen Baxter, Transcendent (Ballantine, 2005). This is the third book in Baxter's "Destiny's Children" series, and it's an unusual combination of a near-future ecological story with a far-future "widescreen baroque" SF novel. Chapters alternate between the near and far futures, with two main characters, Michael Poole and Alia, whose destinies are inextricably linked. I don't want to spoil it by telling you how the tale develops, but I will add that Baxter is one of the very best SF writers working today.

Henry Gee, Jacob's Ladder (W. W. Norton, 2004). Jacob's Ladder is about the human genome. Henry is a senior editor at Nature and a friend of mine. The book arrived inscribed with lengthy instructions on how to read it ("CAUTION: Do not use this product underwater without suitable protection ..."). It's beautifully written, and unlike the instructions, it has a serious aim: to explain what the much-vaunted sequencing of the human genome really means for humanity. What it won't do is lead to immediate cures for all diseases. But in the long run, with suitable advances in other areas, there's a medical revolution on the way. I personally find the science more interesting than the technology that will eventually come from it, but this is a great way to learn about both.

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

Most of my reading is done sitting on the couch in our front room, in the evenings or sometimes weekend afternoons, often with one of our cats sitting on my lap. Avril and I both read a lot—the house is full of books. A lot of the time I'll have the TV on as well, keeping some sort of eye on the program (or not!) and putting the book down again if something sufficiently interesting comes on. I often have several books part-read at any given time. I also read a lot on planes and in airports—usually thrillers, to pass the time without having to put my brain in gear.

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

Fiction: Jack Vance, Larry Niven, Stephen Baxter, Iain M. Banks, Peter Hamilton, Alistair Reynolds. These are all "hard SF" authors, except for Vance, who also writes some fantasy. I like having my mind expanded, while mostly staying true to what we currently know about the universe.

Also Len Deighton and John Le Carré, whose spy novels are much more literate than the usual stuff. I enjoy a good thriller, especially when flying long-haul.

Nonfiction: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Stephen Jay Gould. I don't agree with everything Dawkins writes—his early books are a bit too genetically determined for my taste—but he's provocative and very well informed, and he can explain difficult concepts very effectively. Gould always wrote beautifully, and his intelligence shines through all of his books. Dennett's views on topics like consciousness and free will seem so much more sensible to me than most of the alternatives—I don't think that quantum mechanics or microtubules or nonalgorithmic computation have any chance of explaining our (apparent?) ability to make choices. And earnest discussion of "zombies" strikes me as rather silly, given that they're a thought experiment about something that doesn't exist and very possibly can't exist. It's as sensible (as Cohen and I wrote somewhere) to discuss "zombikes," which resemble a bicycle in every detail, but paradoxically don't move when you sit on them and pedal. Dennett has the same  prejudices that I do, so of course I enjoy reading his work!

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

Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (1908). My uncle gave me a copy when I was 7, and I still enjoy reading about Mole, Rat, Toad and Badger—especially the bit where Mole finds his old home while wandering about in the snow. The writing has a deftness of touch that is very rare.

Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach (Basic Books, 1979). This remains a one-off original. Its central topic is recursion, exemplified in everything from computers to DNA. The framework has three elements: mathematical logic, art and music. The conversations between Achilles and the Tortoise are lovely.

John Barth, Giles Goat-Boy (Doubleday, 1966). I read this whopping novel while I was supposed to be studying for my university second-year examinations, but fortunately the time I spent didn't have a bad effect on my results. It combines a number of elements—a messiah-like central character, Giles, who was raised alongside goats in the agricultural department of West Campus University; an East-West Cold War parody involving the East Campus, which is adjacent to West Campus; an anti-hero who may or may not be the devil, and so on. In the middle of the book, campus students perform a modern Greek tragedy which parallels the entire structure of the book. It sounds weird, but Barth writes fluently and inventively—I know nothing else like it.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

When I was 12, my uncle (same one) gave me a copy of Lancelot Hogben's Man Must Measure: The Wonderful World of Mathematics (1955). This is a coffee-table-sized, illustrated book for children, and at that stage of my development it was perfect. It showed me that there was much more to math than I was being taught at school. I was good at math, to the annoyance of most of my schoolfellows, but it would have been easy to get the impression that the relatively simpleminded stuff we were being taught was all there is. (A lot of adults still think that.) So it helped sustain and focus my interest.

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

The Complete Valley of the Kings, by Nicholas Reeves (Thames and Hudson, 1996).

Alistair Reynolds, Galactic North (Gollancz, 2006).

Charles Stross, Singularity Sky (Ace, 2003).

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

Terry Pratchett's award-winning Discworld books for younger readers (which adults love too)—The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (HarperCollins, 2001), The Wee Free Men (2003), A Hat Full of Sky (2004), Wintersmith (HarperTempest, 2006). I find these much more intelligent and better written than Harry Potter (though J. K. Rowling does write compelling stories, and I think she's a lot better than some critics suggest). Then you can graduate to the adult Discworld books (which young people love too). Pratchett writes intelligent fantasy—there's always a lot going on below the surface.

I also recommend anything written by Martin Gardner, whose "Mathematical Games" columns in Scientific American in the 1960s and 1970s also had a huge influence on my choice of university subject, hence career. You can get his entire output on CD from the Mathematical Association of America Web site, and a lot of his books are still in print.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

Daniel Dennett: Consciousness Explained (Little, Brown, 1991) and Freedom Evolves (Viking, 2003).

Joseph Mazur, Euclid in the Rainforest (Pi Press, 2005).

Michio Kaku, Hyperspace (Oxford University Press, 1994).

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

Robert Devaney, An Introduction to Chaotic Dynamical Systems (Benjamin/Cummings, 1986). This is a postgraduate-level book, accessible to final-year undergraduates with a solid grasp of their subject, and it explains the deep mathematics behind the Mandelbrot set, well known as a visual icon of fractal geometry. It makes it clear that "chaos theory" has plenty of genuine mathematical content.

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