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Scientists' Nightstand: Donal O'Shea

Greg Ross

Donal O'Shea is Elizabeth T. Kennan professor of mathematics at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. His most recent book is The Poincaré Conjecture: In Search of the Shape of the Universe (Walker, 2007).

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

Donal OClick to Enlarge ImageI am the eldest of three children. I grew up in Canada with parents who had emigrated from Ireland after marrying. As a teenager, I was especially interested in science and mathematics. I wound up pursuing mathematics because it seemed to underlie so much and because courses in it did not require lab work. After undergraduate work at Harvard, I returned to Canada for graduate training at Queen's University. I met my wife, Mary, while in graduate school, had two children, took a job as an assistant professor of mathematics at Mount Holyoke College, had another two children, and have, except for frequent leaves, been there ever since. For the last nine years I've been the dean of faculty at Mount Holyoke, which has been fascinating. The oldest women's college in the world, Mount Holyoke is a member of the Five College consortium of western Massachusetts, has a rich mathematical and scientific tradition and has an extraordinarily strong and scholarly faculty.

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?

Two weeks ago, I finished re-reading Lucio Russo's The Forgotten Revolution: How Science Was Born in 300 B.C. and Why It Had to Be Reborn (Springer, 2004). Initially published in Italian, this book received a lovely translation into English in 2004. Russo argues persuasively that science was first discovered in Alexandria and then forgotten until the Renaissance. It is bold, broad-ranging, very scholarly and sure to be very controversial.

While on a long drive, I listened to the audiotape of What Paul Meant, by Greg Wills (Viking, 2006). This short book points out that the letters of Paul were written before the gospels and thus are, in many ways, the most authentic accounts of the early years of Christianity.

I also finished Blank Verse, by Robert Shaw (Ohio University Press, 2007). I started reading the book because Shaw is a professor of poetry at Mount Holyoke, where I am the dean. I quickly became hooked. The book begins hilariously by contrasting a murder scene rendered in blank verse with one in free verse. It goes on to examine the uses of blank verse as opposed to other verse forms. It was a whole new world for me: I didn't know that blank verse was quite constrained (unrhymed iambic pentameter), or even different from free verse, say.

I'm nearly finished with Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005). My curiosity was aroused by a recent conference I attended in which it was quoted by two different speakers to support two conflicting educational policies.

The two most recent fiction books I've read are Rebecca Goldstein's The Mind-Body Problem (Random House, 1983) and John Sandford's Broken Prey (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2005). I had picked up Goldstein's book in a used-book shop. It is a hilarious first-person account of an outspoken, free-spirited Orthodox Jewish woman who marries a self-centered mathematical genius. It apparently created a splash 20 years ago and is simply wonderful. Sandford's book is one of the John Davenport series and is serious escapism.

I've just begun Lisa Randall's book Warped Passages: Unravelling the Mysteries of the Universe's Hidden Dimensions (Ecco, 2005).

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

I usually read at night before going to bed, and I read compulsively on planes, in airports and in hotels. When I was younger and spent the evenings working on mathematics, I had to read in order to sleep. To this day, thinking about a mathematics problem before going to bed will keep me awake. Of course, I would often get involved in the book I was reading and find it impossible to put down. As I've gotten older, this has been less of a problem.

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

In mathematics, I will read anything that John Milnor or Jean-Pierre Serre writes. The care and the spareness of their writing especially appeal to me. My favorite popular science and mathematics writers are Keith Devlin, Ian Stewart and Steven Pinker. In fiction, I especially like Georges Simenon, P. D. James and Dick Francis. I go on binges every time I read a fiction book I enjoy by an author I haven't read, buying all of his or her work and reading it all in a single vacation.  My favorite past binges were Ursula Le Guin, Dorothy Sayers, Toni Morrison, Marion Zimmer Bradley and Margaret Atwood. I have bought books for future Octavia Butler, Robertson Davies and Gregory Benford binges and have been trying not to get into them. My favorite poets are Joseph Brodsky and Seamus Heaney.

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

Aargh. My answer would keep changing. Since I seldom reread books, I tried thinking about books to which I return on a regular basis. Three nonfiction books include W. Strunk and E. B. White, The Elements of Style (1959); A. N. Whitehead, The Aims of Education (1929); and J. Milnor, Topology From the Differentiable Viewpoint (University Press of Virginia, 1965). The first has been instrumental in shaping my own prose preferences, and I find inspiring the way that the style of the sentences illustrates the points the authors make. Whitehead's book is the most thoughtful collection of essays on education that I have ever read. Milnor's book is a close-to-perfect little gem. It explains some beautiful mathematical theorems in a few short pages. Not one word is out of place. I pick it up once a year or so. I almost never re-read fiction, but four books that I have reread with pleasure are Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (Walker, 1969), Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory (1940), H. E. Bates's Fair Stood the Wind for France (1944) and Brad Leithauser's Darlington's Fall: A Novel in Verse (Knopf, 2002). All these books, even Greene's, leave me with a profound sense of hope in the human enterprise.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

This, again, is a function of age. I've mentioned Strunk and White, which has had the greatest effect on my writing. John Milnor's Singular Points of Complex Hypersurfaces (Princeton University Press, 1968) is a beautiful, exceedingly elegant treatment of the unusual topology that one finds near singular points. It fired my imagination as a graduate student and had a huge influence on my mathematical taste and career. When I was very young, I stumbled across a copy of E. T. Bell's Men of Mathematics (1937). I was entranced by the author's romantic (and often overdrawn) accounts of mathematicians' lives. Before reading this, I had no idea that there was any serious work done in mathematics. Finally, Ivan Illich's Deschooling Society (Harper & Row, 1971) had a powerful effect on my teaching. As a dean, I have been influenced by Jim Collins's book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don't (HarperBusiness, 2001) and the accompanying monograph on social sectors.

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

The next three nonfiction books on my reading list are Niall Ferguson's The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West (Penguin, 2006), Stephen O'Shea's Sea of Faith: Islam and Christianity in the Medieval Modern World (Profile, 2006) and Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Viking, 2005).

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

I would recommend anything by Madeleine L'Engle. Her book A Wrinkle in Time (Ariel, 1962) is one of my favorite books of all time.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

There are many. But my favorites would include Jeff Weeks's The Shape of Space (Dekker, 1985), James Gleick's Chaos: Making a New Science (Viking, 1987), Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct (Morrow, 1994), Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe (W. W. Norton, 1999) and Matt Ridley's The Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters (HarperCollins, 1999).

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

Here again I have two recommendations, and I cannot decide between them, because they are very different and would appeal to different persons. John Derbyshire's Prime Obsession: Bernhard Riemann and the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics (Joseph Henry Press, 2003) is a fabulous book accessible to anyone with a little calculus. What is so interesting is that the author, who is a superb writer and who is not a professional mathematician, exhibits precisely the curiosity that one finds in mathematicians. He tries things and he takes readers along with him. It is fascinating. A very different book, requiring more mathematical background, but nothing that most scientists would not have, is T. W. Körner's book Fourier Analysis (Cambridge University Press, 1988). Each chapter in the book is a miniature essay, some more mathematical than others, but each one lovely and unexpected. The chapters interact in a lovely way. The book itself is a metaphor for mathematics: Something seemingly narrow turns out to be related to everything else.

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