Scientists' Nightstand: Chris Sangwin
Chris Sangwin researches applied mathematics at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. He is the author, most recently, of How Round Is Your Circle? Where Engineering and Mathematics Meet (Princeton University Press, 2008), which he cowrote with John Bryant. He is also author, with Chris Budd, of Mathematics Galore! Masterclasses, Workshops and Team Projects in Mathematics and Its Applications (Oxford University Press, 2001). His homepage and GeoGebra page offer videos and animations of applied mathematics in action.
Could you tell us a bit about yourself?
I'm currently a lecturer in the School of Mathematics at the University of Birmingham. I grew up in Salisbury before going to Oxford and then Bath as a graduate student. I graduated and moved to Birmingham in 2000. At present my research work is in applied mathematics and also on computer-aided assessment. My hobbies include mountaineering and beekeeping. I've always been interested in the outdoors, so mountaineering was a natural choice. I took up beekeeping recently and am having a huge amount of fun, making some delicious honey and appreciating much more how important food production really is!
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?
I've just finished a very interesting biography of Léon Foucault (as in Foucault's pendulum)— The Life and Science of Léon Foucault: The Man Who Proved the Earth Rotates, by William Tobin (Cambridge University Press, 2003) and am in the middle of Galileo's Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Ptolemaic and Copernican (1632). I'm reading these mostly for pleasure, but they are work-related in a peripheral way. I'm currently rather obsessed by the pendulum and its various friends. The Dialogue is a world classic. Both have turned out to be more interesting than I expected, and I'd certainly recommend the Dialogue to anyone interested in science.
When and where do you usually read (specific location, time of day, etc.)?
I read a lot at home, on Sunday afternoons and when on holiday. Planes, trains and buses provide another source of time when I can read. But I don't find myself with as much time to read as I'd like, really!
Who are your favorite writers (fiction, nonfiction or poetry)? Why?
I really like David Lodge and Robertson Davies—both are very amusing, which I like in fiction. I've never read that much poetry but do love nonsense poetry, particularly that of Mervyn Peake, author of the Gormenghast trilogy of novels (Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1946-1950).
What are the three best books you've ever read? Explain.
This is a really difficult question. I'd probably choose Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy (Allen and Unwin, 1954-55) for fiction, which I read again and again. Also, Leonhard Euler's Introduction to Analysis of the Infinite (1748) (see below for why) and, from my childhood, How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen , by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Quentin Blake (J. Cape, 1974).
What book has influenced you most? Explain how.
Euler's Introduction to Analysis of the Infinite is probably the most influential maths book I've ever read. It persuaded me of the importance of giving full rein to intuition and following one's nose a little more. He writes in such a clear, but unhurried, style that it is a real pleasure to read. The two volumes combine analysis and geometry in a way which is unusual for the modern reader. I really do recommend it.
Name three books you want to read but haven't gotten to yet.
Newton's Principia (not the easiest thing to read, by all accounts!), Richard Feynman's Lectures on Physics (Addison-Wesley, 1963-65) and Homer's Iliad . I'm probably not supposed to admit I've not read these, but there we are!
What books would you recommend to young readers?
I really didn't read that much as a youngster, to be honest! I do remember reading, and thoroughly enjoying, Frank Herbert's Dune (Chilton Books, 1965) as a teenager, and would recommend that. Recommending a mathematics book is very difficult. Calculus Gems: Brief Lives and Memorable Mathematics, by George Simmons (McGraw-Hill, 1992), is one that I'd recommend, because it has both biographies of mathematicians and also some snippets of mathematics.
What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?
I can't really recommend a science book as such, since my area is mathematics. Simon Singh's Fermat's Last Theorem: The Story of a Riddle That Confounded the World's Greatest Minds for 358 Years (Fourth Estate, 1998) gives a very good account of what pure mathematics is about, so I'd recommend it. For the slightly more mathematically sophisticated reader, Gamma: Exploring Euler's Constant, by Julian Havil (Princeton University Press, 2003), is also really excellent.
Name one book in your discipline that you would recommend for scientists outside your field. Explain your choice.
The mathematics book I'd recommend to people outside applied maths is David Acheson's From Calculus to Chaos: An Introduction to Dynamics (Oxford University Press, 1997). This is one of the best tours through applied mathematics for the non-specialist. The style is informal, and not all the equations are solved, but it includes so many of the classic examples that have developed applied mathematics over the centuries.