PGS Behind The Scenes: Executive Editor Vickie Kearn and the Science of Loving Math

You and math – one of the greatest love/hate relationships of all time. What is it about the subject that excites us yet sends a chilling tingle down our spine at the same time? How can it be so precise, yet so fickle? We may never know the answers to these questions, but we do know that math is ubiquitous, though some of us may try to hide from it.

We also know that there are those who thrive off the subject, who can’t get enough of it. PUP Executive Editor Vickie Kearn is one of those people.  After all, since 2001, her job here at the Press has been acquiring the best titles in mathematics – and even before she came to PUP, she spent her whole life surrounded by numbers and equations.  While math may sometimes cause us to cry tears of despair, it has caused Vickie to cry tears of joy.  Her love of math started as a natural childhood talent, became a pleasantly surprising college benefit, and eventually grew into a career – one that she has dedicated to making the pursuit of mathematical knowledge easier and more enjoyable.

As part of our continuing series of Q&As with our Science and Reference Editors for Princeton Global Science, we found out more about Vickie’s publishing and math background.  Read her truly illuminating answers below:

What is your background in the sciences and particularly mathematics?

For as long as I can remember, I have loved math, whether it was counting things, looking at patterns, or solving logic problems. I grew up in Venezuela and the American school was very small. There were only three of us in my grade so we got a lot of attention and our teacher really loved math. Because the school only went through the 9th grade, I went to boarding school in the states for the rest of high school. Salem Academy only had 100 girls at the time I went. I had no idea that girls weren’t supposed to like math. Elsie Nunn taught the upper level math classes so I had her for three years. She was amazing. She did not have any fancy equipment but she taught a ton of math. We had math club every day after school and she always came up with something amazing. She knew all about the lives of the mathematicians so I had the benefit of knowing who the people were behind the math. I went to the University of Richmond where I studied math. At the time I went there, the campus was split and men and women were on separate sides of a lake. Since math was taught on the men’s side, I got to take all of my classes with them. Men and women were only allowed to talk on Wednesday afternoon and Saturday and Sunday. But since I was a math major and there was only one other woman math major, I was allowed to talk to the men all the time. Who would have thought math would have such great benefits?

When I graduated, I taught school for 8 years. I initially taught elementary school and then moved to the junior high to teach math. I taught in a rural open space school (no internal walls) near Richmond and later in an inner city school in Norfolk, VA. My kids taught me that not everyone learns in the same way and that if math is difficult for some students, you just need to find a different way to teach it.

What got you interested in publishing, and when did you become a science editor?

During the time I taught, I served on a lot of textbook adoption committees and found that the textbooks got worse and worse. I had the opportunity to move to New York with a friend and decided it was time to leave teaching and try to improve math teaching and learning in a bigger way. I thought I would try publishing. My first job was at Academic Press. I was a developmental editor. For three years I edited all the undergraduate textbooks. I made sure all the problems could be worked and wrote the solution’s manuals. After three years and about six different calculus textbooks, I decided that acquiring books would give me more of an opportunity to have an impact on the content so I moved to Marcel Dekker. I initially was the math/statistics editor but as editors came and went, I also did engineering and food science. Although I really liked acquiring, I was required to sign 60 books a year. I no longer had the time to do any development work so after 8 years I went to the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics. There I helped to establish the book program and also got to work with journals, membership, and marketing. The staff was a small hard working group of people dedicated to supporting the members of the society. After 13 years, (and a four hour roundtrip commute) I moved to PUP.

How long have you been in publishing, and when did you come to PUP?

I have been in publishing for 33 years. I came to PUP in March 2001.

Tell us about the books and authors that you’ve worked with. Are there any authors or titles that stand out from the rest? Why?

I have been lucky enough to meet many of the greatest mathematicians. There are so many that stand out but I will pick one from each place I have worked. The first book I edited at Academic Press was Gil Strang’s Introduction to Linear Algebra (now in its 4th edition). I thought it was the best book I had ever read. That was in 1977. My son is a student at Virginia Tech and I gave him that book when he took linear algebra his freshman year. I still see Gil at math meetings. I had the amazing opportunity to work with David and Gregory Chudnovsky at Marcel Dekker on A. D. Sakharov: Collected Scientific Works (1982). During the time we were working on the book, Sakharov was kept tight under Soviet police surveillance and all correspondence had to be smuggled in and out. All of his notes were handwritten. This was probably the most exciting of my projects. One more that I have to mention from this era is The Shape of Space by Jeffrey Weeks. I signed this book when he was a PhD student at Princeton University. This in itself was pretty unusual but this was also the first popular math title that I signed. I recently met up with Jeff again when he was attending a seminar at Princeton. One project that really stands out from SIAM is Matrix Analysis and Applied Linear Algebra by Carl Meyer (2000). This was the first undergraduate textbook that SIAM published and we added all the whistles and bells we could think of. We also included a really neat CD with all kinds of fun math facts and history about the folks mentioned in the book. I have since published another book with Carl and we are working on a third. The book at PUP that is extra special for me is Steve Strogatz’s The Calculus of Friendship: What a Teacher and a Student Learned about Life while Corresponding about Math. This is a wonderful heartwarming story (which also teaches a lot of math) and Steve’s teacher reminds me so much of my high school teacher, Elsie Nunn. This is the only math book that has ever made me cry. Although I have mentioned a few books that stand out I must say that each time I get a message that one of my books has come in, I race to my mailbox to see it. Taking an idea to a pile of papers and then a bound book is an amazing process. It takes the cooperation of so many people. Being an editor is a bit like a bartender or therapist. You need to be a good listener at times, a cheerleader at others, and always a compassionate friend. So many things can happen over the course of writing and publishing a book. I look back over the past three decades and am so happy to say that I have hundreds of friends–most of them mathematicians.

What makes mathematics publishing different from other subject areas?

In short–equations. When determining how big a book will be, compositors want to know how many words there are. I still don’t know how to count equations as words. We now work with final book pages which is much easier to calculate. In many disciplines, academics need to publish books to get tenure. In math (and many of the other sciences) academics need to publish papers; books do not add to their vita. My colleagues in the humanities and social sciences get numerous manuscripts submitted to them each year. I learn of new book projects through networking with mathematicians in academia and industry.

A surprising fact is that some of PUP’s best-selling books are math books. What is your take on popular math? Is this a trend that will continue to grow?

I believe that the attitude toward math is changing. Many people still “hate” it or find it “really hard.” I agree that much of the math in the books we publish at PUP is way beyond my understanding but everyone can learn math and appreciate it at some level. That is what our popular math books are all about. They are about finding out really neat facts and how things work. We want people to see the connections to other areas such as biology and economics. We want them to understand the history of math and how it was developed. And, we want them to understand how mathematicians work and what they do when they are not doing math. I have known mathematicians who are wonderful painters and singers. I know one who used to drop the starting flag at the Indianapolis 500. Another I know is an accomplished break dancer. One used to play for the Boston Red Sox until he was injured. Math was his backup plan. We get terrific reviews of the popular math books. Two quotes that stand out for me are the following. One reviewer stated that if he had to be stranded on a deserted island, he would want to have a book by Paul Nahin with him. One reader of Fearless Symmetry by Avner Ash and Robert Gross said it was like climbing a mountain. You might not get all the way to the top but the view was just as good. We get lots of fan mail about the popular math books, from kids as young as middle school. My hope is that everyone who is a math hater will pick up a popular math book and give it a try.

The Calculus Lifesaver by Adrian Banner is a monumental mathematics course book. What is the story behind it?

Adrian Banner developed a study course for non-math majors who were struggling with calculus. At first, only a few students showed up but it wasn’t long before the lecture hall was packed, especially right before tests. He developed notes as he taught the course. After I badgered him for a few years, he polished them and even did all the typesetting. The book is written for 18-year-old students and includes examples that are fun for them to work through. Adrian wrote it so that the students would understand the process and not learn just how to get the right answer. The book has its own MySpace and Facebook page. Adrian gets a lot of fan mail from students who profess that his book “Saved my life!”. We taped all of the lectures which are available for free. They have had more than 60 million downloads. The interesting thing is that although this book was written just as a study guide, and not a textbook, schools are starting to adopt it because students can really learn from it. It also costs only $25.00.

What are some of the most outstanding PUP mathematics series, and why? What plans do you have for these series?

The cornerstone of our mathematics program is the Annals of Mathematics Studies book series. It was started in 1940 and includes books by John Tukey, Hermann Weyl, Paul Halmos, Alonzo Church, John von Neumann, John Milnor and many other outstanding mathematicians. I sometimes look at my bookshelf and am amazed at all of those great books in one place. We publish about 4 books each year in this series. The books are rigorously refereed even though the authors are at the top of their careers. We plan to continue this series. In the past 10 years we have added an applied math monographs series and are also publishing undergraduate and graduate level textbooks.

Are there any authors or academics who haven’t worked with PUP before that you’re dying to work with?

This is an interesting question. Of course I would love to work with anyone who has won a Fields Medal or the Abel Prize. These are people who have amazing mathematical minds and who will take mathematics to the next highest level. Then there are those dedicated teachers who are able to bring out the best in their students, who may one day be Fields Medalists themselves. Most often it is these teachers who write our popular math books and our textbooks which are so important to exciting young people. I would love to work with more women authors. When I started as a math editor in 1977 I never had to describe myself before a meeting because there were so few women. That has really changed but we still need more women mathematicians and authors.


  1. Henry Ricardo says:

    Keep up the great work, Vickie. I am responsible for one of the reviews you mention: “One reviewer stated that if he had to be stranded on a deserted island, he would want to have a book by Paul Nahin with him.”
    I stand by that review and look forward to seeing other great books from PUP in the future.