Archives for July 2011


FACT: “In the treeless Aleutian Islands, Bald Eagles nest on the ground. Small sticks are picked up or broken off and carried in the beak; large ones are carried in the talons. In the center of the platform a cup 3-5in (7.5-13cm) deep, lined with grass and mosses is formed. Large nests can weigh two tons and last for over 50 years.”

Avian Architecture: How Birds Design, Engineer, and Build
Peter Goodfellow

Birds are the most consistently inventive builders, and their nests set the bar for functional design in nature. Avian Architecture describes how birds design, engineer, and build their nests, deconstructing all types of nests found around the world using architectural blueprints and detailed descriptions of the construction processes and engineering techniques birds use. This spectacularly illustrated book features 300 full-color images and more than 35 case studies that profile key species worldwide. Each chapter covers a different type of nest, from tunnel nests and mound nests to floating nests, hanging nests, woven nests, and even multiple-nest avian cities. Other kinds of avian construction—such as bowers and harvest wells—are also featured.

Avian Architecture includes intricate step-by-step sequences, visual spreads on nest-building materials and methods, and insightful commentary by a leading expert.

-Illustrates how birds around the world design, engineer, and build their nests

-Features architectural blueprints, step-by-step sequences, visual spreads on nest-building materials and methods, and expert commentary

-Includes 300 full-color images

-Covers more than 100 bird species worldwide

“[Goodfellow] sharpens the focus to explore nests only from the perspective of their architecture—their form, function, construction materials, how they are made, and by whom. . . . We love finding nests but rarely pay attention to how they are built. Avian Architecture will magnify your sense of wonder. The book is chockablock full of detail presented in a very accessible way.”—Wayne Mones,

For more information on Avian Architecture, please visit:

Dialogue with Howard Wainer, author of Uneducated Guesses

Howard Wainer’s most recent book, Uneducated Guesses, is both a challenge to education policymakers and a warning to the country about the misguided policies that shape our nation’s educational system. Wainer uses statistical evidence to uncover the problems that threaten education in the United States in a book that is both accessible and eye opening for any reader. We recently posed some questions to Professor Wainer and are thrilled to post this dialogue about various issues he addresses in his book.

PUP: You discuss a lot of issues surrounding college and university admittance in Uneducated Guesses, one of which is the current trend of not requiring the SAT for admittance. Do you think that more schools will follow suit?

Professor Howard Wainer: I hope not. Right now there are powerful forces pushing some schools to abandon admission tests. One of the most insidious is how making such tests optional artificially boosts the school’s US News & World Report rankings. I hope that by exposing such strategies it will help to stifle such policies.

PUP: I always thought the rankings were done without room to really “cheat”. How do optional SAT admissions allow schools to game the rankings?

HW: If they make an admission test optional, applicants will behave sensibly. If their scores are lower than is typical for the school to which they are applying,they are likely to not submit them. Therefore the average SAT score, calculated from those who submit them, will be higher than the true, but unknown, all-student average. Thus schools that make the SAT mandatory are placed at a competitive disadvantage. Suppose one school’s average SAT score (an important component of the US News & World Report rankings) included all attending students, whereas another school’s only included the top half? It doesn’t make for fair comparisons.

PUP: So then, how well designed are college rankings and how much do they mean?

HW: I think that the rankings generated by US News & World Report are a sensible way to begin. They choose a set of variables that are positively related to the vague concept ‘quality’, rank schools on each of these variables, and then add them up. The key elements that are of concern are: (i) are the variables all pointed in the right direction, (ii) are there any important variables missing, (iii) are there any included variables that have no relationship to ‘quality’. If these bases are covered there is a theorem (stated and proved by Princeton statistician Sam Wilks 75 years ago) that tells us that this procedure will work. Consumers of such an index must be worried about two things – first, the extent to which the variables used can be gamed, and second, that they are interpreting the rankings too finely.

PUP: Jumping to another topic you discuss extensively in the book: testing. You note that tests in which examinees are allowed to choose which questions they answer are problematic–why is this?

HW: Because they are not fair. It is insuperably difficult to write test questions that are of equal difficulty. If examinees choose unwisely they will get lower scores than others who choose to answer easier questions. When we build tests with choice we exacerbate group differences. In one test I looked at, women, for whatever reason, seemed to systematically choose harder questions, and thus obtained lower scores, than comparable men who chose the easier options.

PUP: Your book makes it clear that you believe that essays on large-scale standardized tests also pose special problems: they are time consuming for examinees, expensive to score, and yield less reliable scores than multiple-choice exams. Why do you think the College Board opted to add a writing section to the SAT?

HW: I don’t know. That test was added to the SAT after I left Educational Testing Service (ETS), so I was not privy to the discussions involved in its genesis. But I can guess. It is well known that if a topic is tested its likelihood of being taught increases. I suspect that the College Board wanted to emphasize the importance of developing skills in writing clear prose and that they probably figured that if there was a separate test of writing, schools would be more likely to emphasize its instruction.

PUP: Another take away for me was the sheer number and variety of tests that students take. You have a fascinating chapter on AP courses and tests, so let me start by asking why do you think so many high schools have such a high failure rate among their students who take AP exams?

HW: AP courses have a well-deserved reputation for rigor and quality among both parents and educators. Hence there is pressure on schools to offer as many AP courses as possible and to enroll as many of their students in them as they can. Unfortunately, not all students are prepared for such courses. Nevertheless, too often such students are allowed to take the courses; perhaps because school officials yield to parental pressure, or perhaps because schools are judged by the size of enrollment in AP courses, or both.

When this happens, AP teachers are placed in a difficult position. They must choose between teaching the course in a way that covers the material necessary to pass the exam or using up as much class time as necessary for remedial material. If they choose the latter they cheat those students who are prepared to take the course, if they choose the former they must leave some students hopelessly befuddled. Faced with this Scylla and Charybdis, the only sure outcome is unhappiness all around. Schools that screen students carefully before allowing them to take AP courses are the only ones that make full use of the considerable resources required to teach advanced courses.

PUP: And now to one of the hot-button issues in contemporary education policy — Value-Added Models of teacher evaluation. In the book you provide real evidence that this system simply doesn’t work as it stands now. Can you explain this a bit further?

HW: Evaluating a professional’s competence is a task that has a long and rocky history. Many people have worked on this in the past, and many more are working on it right now. Why don’t we learn from what is done with other professionals? How are lawyers or doctors evaluated? I suspect that if patient outcome was the principal datum in physician evaluation we would see many more dermatologists and far fewer oncologists. While it is obvious in medicine that the success of a physician is crucially dependent on the overall health of the patient, proponents of Value-Added Models seem to believe that a teacher can be evaluated without regard to the students’ initial ability. There is this mistaken belief that somehow the magic of statistics can make equal things that are not. It can’t.

PUP: You speak highly of computer adaptive testing in Uneducated Guesses, what is that exactly?

HW:To be efficient a test should be aimed at the ability of the examinee. It makes no sense to ask calculus questions of 3rd graders. Mass-administered tests have to have questions that span the range of ability of the examinees. This means that there will be questions that are inappropriately difficult for some people and inappropriately easy for others. A computer adaptive test, a CAT, fixes this. It asks the examinee a question of middling difficulty. If the examinee gets it right it asks a more difficult one. If the examinee gets it wrong it asks an easier one. In this way it can quickly zero in on the appropriate level. In practice we have found that a CAT only needs about half as many questions as a paper & pencil test to arrive at a score of comparable accuracy. For some purposes this is a significant saving.

PUP: Computer adaptive tests seem like the way to go, so why do you think institutions are not adopting the method?

HW: They are expensive to implement because they require a large pool of items to be included that have all been pre-calibrated. Such a system can be done by a large commercial testing organization (e.g. ETS, the US military, the College Board, ACT) but it is nigh onto impossible for a classroom teacher.

PUP: What do you believe is the largest misconception about the school system in the United States?

HW: That it can work miracles without the full cooperation of parents and without a lot of money.

To discuss this we must use the right words. We must distinguish between education and schooling. The former takes place 24 hours a day and for most of that time is determined by the home, the community, the church, and the school. The latter takes place for six hours a day, 5 days a week, 30 weeks a year. To have an effective education system, all of the components must work together toward common goals. To leave it to teachers whose schools are too often so short of resources that they, the teachers, end up having to buy classroom supplies from their own funds, is a recipe for failure.

PGS Dialogue: David Weintraub, author of How Old Is the Universe?

David Weintraub’s most recent book, How Old Is the Universe?, is a readable investigation of the title question that explains how we have arrived at an approximate age of 13.7 billion years for the universe. Weintraub works his way from biblical chronology of the origins of the universe to the high-tech astronomy research taking place today in this accessible and entertaining history. We recently posed some questions to Prof. Weintraub by email and are pleased to present this dialogue.

PUP: I am not an astronomer, so I was relieved to discover I could actually read How Old Is the Universe? You clearly went to great efforts to make the text accessible. How difficult was it to break down these big scientific ideas, terms, and facts for general readers?

Professor David Weintraub: Making sure I was speaking to a non-professional audience in English rather than in the jargon-filled language of astronomy was a constant challenge.  A major goal with this book is to help general-audience readers understand the complicated and unfamiliar concepts described between the covers.  Consequently I focused on this issue quite literally with every word I wrote.  At the risk of being struck down by the gods for hubris, I do think I have done better at this than most astronomers who are trying to communicate with a non-professional audience.  Nevertheless, more than a few of my descriptions passed through my ‘language of the lay reader’ filter unnoticed by me.  Fortunately, Princeton University Press assigned my manuscript to an editor who asked me lots of excellent questions for clarification, and quite often her questions arose when she bumped into a piece of text in which the meaning was unclear to her because of my too-technical word choices.  I do think, in the end, the presentation of difficult concepts in this book is accessible to the general reader because we paid such close attention to language and because I continually reminded myself of whom the readership of the book is intended to be.  My editor was a humanist who knew no astronomy before beginning to edit the book.  So she was my test reader; if she didn’t understand my words, I flunked the test.  When we were done, she felt that she understood every word and had learned and now understood everything in the book.  Fortunately for her and all readers, unless you are in one of my classes, there is no test at the end of each chapter.

(blog editor note: But if you do like homework, you can find lots of extra course materials on Prof. Weintraub’s site:

PUP: One of the scientific principles you describe so clearly in the book is the rate at which the universe is expanding. While we are often told to assume nothing, you note that in this case, there is a lot of evidence to support the assumption that the expansion rate of the universe has been nearly constant. Can you talk a little bit about the expansion of the universe and the role dark energy plays in the process?

DW: The rate at which the universe has been expanding has changed over the lifetime of the universe, but since it first reached its current expansion speed it has not changed by much.  For the first few moments after the universe’s birth, the expansion rate was dramatically higher.  But that period of time (known as the inflationary epoch) lasted only a tiny fraction of a second.  Thereafter, the rate of expansion was nearly constant for ten billion years.  For the last few billion years, the expansion rate has been increasing, but the rate of increase is so slow, it is only barely measureable. Thus, it is safe to say that the expansion rate of the universe has been nearly constant for almost the entire history of the universe.

The actual measurements indicate we now live in an accelerating universe; these words simply mean that the rate of expansion is increasing. Dark energy is the name we give to the physical process that is causing the expansion rate of the universe to increase.  The evidence for the accelerating universe comes from measuring the distances and velocities (away from us, in all cases) of extremely distant galaxies; those measurements come from observing exploding stars called supernovae.  Supernovae are among the brightest objects in the universe; because they are so bright, we can detect them even when they are very far away, and because supernovae are stars that live and die inside galaxies, the supernovae are like flags that wave and tell us the distance to the galaxies in which they reside.

PUP: From exploding to imploding stars…In chapter four, you describe what happens to stars once they have drained the number of protons in their core. The resulting bodies are called “red giants.” What would happen to the Earth if (or when) the Sun turns into a red giant? How would it affect the other planets and bodies in our solar system?

DW: In about three billion years, the Sun will begin to evolve into a red giant.  So the question is not “if” but “when” this will happen.   During this red-giant phase of a star’s lifetime, the star puffs up.  The outer layers of the Sun likely will expand outward and fill up most of the volume of the solar system inside of the Earth’s orbit.  While the surface of the Sun will actually be cooler than it is now, it will still have a temperature of several thousand degrees, and that surface layer will be so close to the Earth that the heat received by the Earth will increase so much that the atmosphere and oceans will literally boil off into space.  The Earth itself might eventually turn molten before it is swallowed by the Sun.  Before the Earth is destroyed by the dying Sun, the planets Mercury and Venus, both of which are closer to the Sun than is the Earth, will suffer similar fates.  Mars is probably far enough away from the Sun that it might survive, but it also will lose what little atmosphere it has.  The outer solar system would be affected in less extreme ways.

PUP: This is the stuff of childhood nightmares, which leads naturally to childhood daydreams, or in this case, star-gazing. A good part of what we know about the universe, we know because of the close observation of identifiable stars. But there are hundreds of millions of stars; how is it possible to keep track of individual stars?

DW: Imagine sitting in the stands at a football game; you look across at the 40,000 fans sitting on the opposite side of the stadium from you.  You make a map of where each fan is sitting and identify each one with a section, row, and seat number.  With your binoculars, you carefully make some observations of each and every fan (long brown hair or bald headed? baseball cap or no hat?  glasses? beard? windbreaker or raincoat?) so that each person can be distinguished from his or her closest neighbors.  Now the rules for movement: no fan is allowed to move more than 1 inch per century.  Yes, per hundred year interval of time.  Now you go home, sleep like Rip van Winkle, eat, work, come back in fifty years and look again across the stadium.  You will be able to identify each and every football fan, both from their locations and their particular characteristics (provided they’ve been fed well and don’t age much). The stars are so far away from us that the rates at which they change positions are almost immeasurable, even in a human lifetime.  The stars do move, and astronomers can measure their motions, but their motions are so small that year after year we are able to easily find and re-find the same stars.

PUP: Another fascinating fact I took away from the book is that stars come in different colors. You note that some stars are blue and others are red, but that they may not be visible to the naked human eye. Why is this?

DW: Most stars emit light in fairly similar amounts across the spectrum of visible light (what our eyes can perceive) and thus appear white.  But red stars and blue stars do exist and are visible to the naked human eye.  Red stars emit light in all colors, but they emit more red light than any other color; similarly, blue stars emit all colors of light, but they emit more blue light than green or yellow or orange or red.

My eyes are not very sensitive to colors — I fail all the color-blindness tests — so to my eyes, red giants are barely different in color from most other stars (that appear white) and blue supergiants are only a bit bluer, as seen by me, than most other stars.  But to observers whose eyes are sensitive to subtle color differences, red stars and blue stars are easily distinguished from the rest of the stars.  Clear skies help; patience in observing the night sky helps; and knowing where to look helps.  But once a red star or blue giant star is pointed out to you, you would immediately recognize their colors.   Most of us simply have not spent enough time looking up at night, under dark skies, to notice the color differences among stars.

PUP: It seems as if any discussion of astronomy almost always leads to the great Hollywood question – “Is there extra-terrestrial life in the universe?” What are your thoughts on the possibility of finding ET?

DW: I find the universe to be incomprehensibly immense and lonely.  I almost long for the olden days — before Copernicus — when humans “knew” that the entire universe was small and we were of central importance to the workings of the universe.

I am not convinced, as most of my professional colleagues and Hollywood producers seem to be, that the universe must be populated with life, including intelligent life.  I also am not convinced that we are alone.  I think we lack the knowledge to make any claims, one way or another, about life beyond the Earth.  But I do find Enrico Fermi’s question “Where are they?” the one I think about the most.  Wherever they are, if someone else is out there, we haven’t found them yet and they haven’t found us yet and we see no evidence of their presence in or impact on at least our part of the Milky Way galaxy.  Our solar system is fairly hostile to life.  Venus and Mars, the most Earthlike planets in our solar system, did not survive for long enough as habitable planets for advanced life forms like us to make them home.  The Earth, in fact, may be a very special place.

This suggests to me that life may be rare, if not unique, at least in our part of the universe and that humanity must take more responsibility for ensuring the survival of life.  Not the survival of life on Earth but life itself.  We may have an incredibly important responsibility.  If we’re it, then if we screw this planet up, the grand experiment of life in the universe might end with us.

I do think that all the wild speculation about life beyond the Earth permits us to be very casual about life on Earth; it permits is to be cavalier about our stewardship of our planet.  Many religious beliefs also lead us to acting selfishly about life and our planet.  I don’t think such carefree attitudes about the health of our planet are good ones.

PUP: That segues somewhat neatly into my next questions. It may surprise some readers that you start your “popular science book” with an account of biblical chronology.  In fact, chapter two (titled “4004 BCE”) opens with a famous quote from The Annals of the World in which James Ussher determines that the universe was born on “the twenty third day of October in the year of the Julian calendar, 710.” Why did you select this quote? And why engage with a religious account that is at odds with scientific research?

DW: The quote, or at least a poor paraphrase thereof, from Bishop Ussher is well-known.  I placed an important quote at the beginning of each chapter that is related to the most important concept presented in that chapter, and I thought it would be of some value to place in front of readers an accurate quote from Bishop Ussher.

As for why the chapter is in the book, I wanted to recognize the role that biblical chronology and scholarship played in understanding the age of the universe.  For a short period of time, in the seventeenth century, scholars like James Ussher and John Lightfoot were at the intellectual forefront in this field.  Most scholars, let alone non-professionals, don’t recognize that fact and often laugh at this quote.  My goals with this chapter were to recognize the important role that biblical chronology played, as an attempt to answer questions about the age of the Earth and the universe, in the seventeenth century, but also to point out that this method of scholarship was quickly found to be flawed and thus was left behind.  As a scholarly discipline, biblical chronology never achieved scholarly success, and in addition, it was supplanted by modern science.  The history of science reveals progress in our knowledge; this chapter presents a good illustration of such progress.  Biblical chronology was cutting edge in 1650, but it was quickly supplanted by better ideas, scientific ideas.

My hope, with this chapter, is that I would engage some readers who might put some credence in biblical chronology as an accurate chronometer for the universe, but to do so without insulting them.

PUP: How did your fascination with astronomy begin?

DW: I have no idea.  I flunked out of boy scouts at age 11 because I failed, multiple times, the test for identifying constellations and simply gave up thinking I could ever achieve the rank of first-class scout.  I know that I was never interested in looking up and memorizing the patterns of stars.  But I was a youth and a young teenager when some big discoveries were made in astronomy — the cosmic background radiation in 1965, pulsars in 1968 — and I grew up in the early days of space exploration — the race to the moon, the Pioneer and Voyager missions to the outer solar system, the Viking mission to Mars.  So my youth was peppered with news and excitement about space.  I also read science fiction, and I know that certain stories (Arthur C. Clarke’s The Nine Billion Names of God, The Star, and 2001, foremost among them) had a big impact on me.  I found myself interested in what stars and galaxies are and how they worked, but mostly I found myself interested in planets and the question “how do planets form?”

PUP: What advice would you offer a person who is thinking about pursuing astronomy?

DW: Astronomy is fun and being an astronomer is a wonderful way to be spending my life.  I would encourage a young person interested in astronomy to follow that interest as far as it takes him or her.  Astronomy is a tremendously successful vehicle for getting our youth interested in science.  With apologies to my friends who are chemists, I think it is obvious that learning about black holes and dark matter is more exciting to most young people, at first blush, than studying about covalent and ionic bonds.  Once youth become excited about astronomy, however, they discover that they need to know some fundamental science and math in order to further pursue their love of astronomy.  As a result, it’s a short hop, skip, and jump into the serious study of mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and computer science, all of which are important as foundational disciplines for astronomy.  Most of those who start out interested in astronomy will discover that these or other related disciplines (geology, engineering) or more distant ones that they discover (neuroscience, anthropology) through their studies of these fundamental disciplines become their passion.

PUP: What are your hopes for those who read this book?

DW: I would like readers to share in the wonder of knowing that humans have discovered the age of the universe.  This is a phenomenal, almost outlandish achievement.  Rather than sitting back and saying “Astronomers claim this is so and I guess I should believe them,” I want readers to say “Astronomers have explained to me, step by step, how they obtained the age of the universe, and I understand what they have done and I agree with their answer.”

PUP: Do you have any future projects in mind? Perhaps another book?

DW: Yes, I am working on current projects and have future projects in mind.  My research, primarily on why very young stars produce X-rays and whether those X-rays can tell us anything about the formation of planetary systems around those stars continues.  But like all baseball players, I believe in jinxes.  So I would prefer not to jinx myself by telling you much more than that or by answering the second question.

Watch Prof. Weintraub’s recent lecture series hosted at Vanderbilt (Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

Psychologist Nicholas Humphrey on the airwaves talking SOUL DUST

Our author Nicholas Humphrey was on the airwaves recently discussing consciousness and his eye-opening new book SOUL DUST: The Magic of Consciousness.  On July 7 he chatted with Virginia Prescott on New Hampshire Public Radio’s Word of Mouth about the book.  And, on July 11, he discussed the book on SETI Radio. For some engrossing conversation about how science can explain what we think of as “the soul,” then check out these interviews!

SOUL DUST, Nicholas Humphrey’s new book about consciousness, is seductive–early 1960s, ‘Mad Men’ seductive. His writing is as elegant, and hypnotic, as that cool jazz stacked on the record player. His argument feels as crystalline and bracing as that double martini going down, though you might find yourself a little woozy afterward. And his tone is as warm and inviting as that big, crackling fire, even if the dim flicker does leave things a bit obscure in the corners. . . . [SOUL DUST] is not only thoroughly enjoyable but genuinely instructive, too.”
—  Alison Gopnik, New York Times Book Review

Author Shamus Khan to speak at Hopewell Public Library!

Shamus Khan, author of Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School, will speak at the Hopewell Public Library this September 7, exact time to be announced.

Keep checking the PUP blog and the library’s website for more details about the event.  Be sure to pick up your own copy of Privilege to read before his talk!

To learn a bit more about the book, check out this blog post.

Nature’s Geometry

The geometry we learned in high school is ideal for describing “man-made” forms such as buildings, roads, fences, etc. But lines, circles, and triangles don’t seem to do justice to trees, clouds, or mountains. What about the forms of nature? Is there a geometry for them? The late mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot (1924-2010) pioneered just such a geometry; he called fractal geometry after the Latin word fractus, which means broken or irregular.A fractal is a shape composed of smaller copies of itself (think “fractured”). For example, a cauliflower is composed of florets—little flowers—which look just like little cauliflowers. We can use this idea to draw many natural forms using precise, step-by-step methods called algorithms. In the figure below we start with a simple, three-stick tree in (a) and then repeatedly turn each branch tip into a smaller, three-stick tree. The last step (f) is a computer rendering of the fractal the shapes are converging to.

Step-by-step drawing of a fractal tree.

The close-up below illustrates one of the reasons Annalisa Crannell and I chose the striking photograph Winter Road along the Trees by Wil Van Dorp for the cover of Viewpoints: Mathematical Perspective and Fractal Geometry in Art. The fractal beauty of the trees was impossible to resist!

Detail of the cover of Viewpoints.

Nowadays computers use fractal algorithms to generate photographically real landscapes in many feature films that require special effects. However, mathematicians and computer scientists may not have been the first to follow this road. As Benoit Mandelbrot pointed out, Asian artists have employed fractal-like portrayals of natural forms for centuries. As you can see below, Japanese woodblock artists of the nineteenth century used abbreviations for natural forms that are surprisingly similar to fractals investigated by mathematicians and scientists more than a century later!

Top: A “quadric Koch island” fractal as described by Mandelbrot.
Bottom: Boats in a Tempest in the Trough of the Waves off the Coast of Choshi (detail), from the series A Thousand
Pictures of the Sea
, by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849).
Top: Fractal generated by an iterated function system.Bottom: Shono: Driving Rain (detail), from the seriesThe Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido, by Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858).
> Top: Fractal model of two-fluid displacement in a porous medium.Bottom: Short History of Great Japan (detail), by
Ikkasai Yoshitoshi (1839-1892).


Marc Frantz holds a BFA in painting from the Herron School of Art and an MS in mathematics from Purdue University. He teaches mathematics at Indiana University, Bloomington where he is a research associate.

Annalisa Crannell is professor of mathematics at Franklin & Marshall College. She is the coauthor of Writing Projects for Mathematics Courses.




This is the final installment in a series of blog postings from the authors of Viewpoints: Mathematical Perspective and Fractal Geometry in Art.


Rothschild Lauded by Former Prime Minister

On Tuesday afternoon Princeton University Press had the honour of sponsoring a celebration of Emma Rothschild’s new book, THE INNER LIFE OF EMPIRES, at the University of Edinburgh, at the generous invitation of the Rt Hon Gordon Brown, MP. Lauded in the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the Economist, Prof Rothschild’s book describes the complex world of empire, economy and enlightenment in the 18th century by telling the story of the extraordinary Johnstone family – 11 siblings who were born in Scotland and became abolitionists, speculators, slave owners, government officials and politicians and whose careers spanned the globe. Speaking about the origins of the book, Professor Rothschild described how a question from Gordon Brown about a parliamentary election in Adam Smith’s home town of Kirkcaldy led to the chance discovery of the letter book of John Johnstone and the world of his family. Dr Brown praised Rothschild’s pioneering research in economic history and the thought of Adam Smith, describing how the globalized world of the 18th century Johnstones which stretched from Grenada to India, has much to teach us about the current crisis of globalization.

Other speakers at the event included Nicholas Phillippson, biographer of Adam Smith and David Hume, and Sir Raymond Johnstone, descendant of John, who charmingly described his ancestors as “Borders Reivers.”

THE INNER LIFE OF EMPIRES is available in hardcover and in electronic form from Princeton University Press.

Perspective by the Numbers as Art Appreciation

One of the best types of art appreciation course is a straight-up studio course in painting, drawing, or sculpture. Even a few lessons can provide a better grasp of the talent and discipline that go into the artwork we see in galleries and museums. But what about the contemporary art we see in movie theaters? More and more of what we see on the movie screen is computer-generated imagery (CGI), including entire films by the big animation studios such as Pixar, DreamWorks, and Industrial Light & Magic. Are there art appreciation lessons for this type of art?

It so happens there are. While a complete understanding requires a fairly advanced knowledge of mathematics and computer graphics, a good grasp of the basics requires only elementary mathematics and access to computer spreadsheet software. Annalisa Crannell and I devote a chapter to this in Viewpoints: Mathematical Perspective and Fractal Geometry in Art. One of my students, Tia, chose this medium for her final project. Although Tia was a biology major, you can see from the samples below that she was able to design a nice mathematical model of a lamp and lampshade, and use a spreadsheet to visualize them from any angle.

Part of a student’s final project

Tia’s project included multiple, hand-colored drawings made from scatter plots she generated in Microsoft Excel. This hybrid approach gives a good feel for the power of computers in 3-D imagery, without losing the connection between the relevant mathematics and the final artwork. The quality of her images underscores an important advantage of doing perspective by the numbers like this. Namely, it acts as a kind of safety net for people who lack talent or confidence in drawing, allowing them to make images that art majors would be equally proud of.


Marc Frantz holds a BFA in painting from the Herron School of Art and an MS in mathematics from Purdue University. He teaches mathematics at Indiana University, Bloomington where he is a research associate.



This is the fourth in a series of blog postings from the authors of Viewpoints: Mathematical Perspective and Fractal Geometry in Art.


FACT: Following the Amarna period of the new Kingdom, around 1200 BCE, Egyptians invented a simple device known as the shaduf, which, using a fulcrum, lifted a water bag that enabled cultivators to irrigate the lands from the spring and summer low-water nile. Shadufs made it possible to grow winter crops, such as cotton and additional cereals.

Egypt: A Short History
Robert L. Tignor

Egypt: A Short History is a sweeping, colorful, and concise narrative history of Egypt from the beginning of human settlement in the Nile River valley 5000 years ago to the present day. Accessible, authoritative, and richly illustrated, this is an ideal introduction and guide to Egypt’s long, brilliant, and complex history for general readers, tourists, and anyone else who wants a better understanding of this vibrant and fascinating country, one that has played a central role in world history for millennia—and that continues to do so today.

“Robert L. Tignor’s ambitious Egypt: A Short History stretches from the Predynastic age to the present, tying the various periods together in a continuous 5,000-year narrative to create a lengthy history told in a short book. . . . Tignor writes with an easy, assured style, and his history becomes more focused and more authoritative as it progresses. He tells us it was conceived as an alternative guidebook for discerning tourists wishing to learn about more than just pyramids and pharaohs: as such—as an enjoyable book written by someone who clearly knows and loves Egypt and the Egyptians—it serves its purpose very well.”—Financial Times

“This is a masterpiece. In simple and accessible prose, Robert Tignor builds on his long and deep familiarity with Egyptian history, politics, and economy. The reader comes away with an understanding of what propels Egyptian history over the ages, and an appreciation of the key questions that beleaguer modern Egypt. This book will be of enormous value for general readers, students, and tourists.”—Khaled Fahmy, New York University

We invite you to read Chapter 1 here:

Reflecting on the Berlin Wall

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall. The wall represented so much to people and nations around the world, and despite its destruction in 1989, the memory of its significance endures to this day. Half a century after its construction, what meaning does the Berlin Wall hold for us? Two Princeton University Press authors examine this question in different lights.

In Driving the Soviets up the Wall: Soviet-East German Relations, 1953-1961, Hope M. Harrison examines the Wall as a symbol of the Cold War, telling “the behind-the-scenes story of the communists’ decision to build the Wall in 1961.”  Her book explores the relationships between nations within the Soviet bloc as they dealt with the issues of immigration and liberalization.  Her narrative provides new insights into how the Wall was viewed by Soviets, and how the initial decision to build the wall was reached.

Mary Elise Sarotte’s 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe takes a look at the tumultuous period following the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Her book tries to understand how various pressures affected the development of the post-1989 world, and how the events of 1989 affected and continue to affect our world today.

Both authors present pictures of the Berlin Wall in ways that ask us to redefine its importance in our lives.  The Cold War was a major defining aspect of the United States’ identity in the last century, and its legacy continues to affect America today.  With the 50th anniversary of the Wall’s construction upon us, it is worth while to take time to reflect on the Wall, the War, and the vast changes in the world from 1961, to 1989, to the present day.

A night of poetry with author Troy Jollimore

This Monday, July 25, author Troy Jollimore will be speaking in San Francisco!

The event will be hosted by Green Apple Books at 7pm, and will also feature Anthony Carelli.  The two poets will give readings from their new works.

To learn more about Jollimore’s amazing poetry, pick up a copy of At Lake Scugog.  And don’t miss the chance to hear him speak on Monday!

Taking Heart, Making Art

As a mathematician, I expect that people at parties will tell me that they’re no good at math. I’m used to my friends confessing their fears of my subject. I understand that many people think math is hard and scary. That’s why I was so eager to do something easy and approachable, like drawing, in my math classes. I figured Viewpoints: Mathematical Perspective and Fractal Geometry in Art would allow my students to learn geometry by doing art.But to my great surprise, I found that it is the art, not the math, that makes people really nervous. As my coauthor Marc Frantz told me, most college graduates have a bit of math in college, and almost all have had a math class their senior year of high school. But few adults have had an art class since 6th grade. Sid’s drawing below is typical of what I see at the beginning of the semester in my course. My students enter college drawing like children, and they are understandably embarrassed by this.

Sid’s first drawing
Learning the mathematical “rules” for drawing opens up whole new possibilities. In this context, rules don’t stifle creativity; they allow for fuller expression. My math-and-art students flourished, and I was heartened, too. Few of my students ever want to see their final calculus exam after they turn it in, but almost all of my students show their parents photocopies they’ve made of the final drawings they’ve turned in to me. Sid’s final drawing, like so much of my students’ late-semester work, shows a mastery of space with hints of great things beyond the horizon. You can tell he’s not going to be afraid of anything.

Sid’s final drawing

Annalisa Crannell is professor of mathematics at Franklin & Marshall College. She is the coauthor of Writing Projects for Mathematics Courses.


This is the third in a series of blog postings from the authors of Viewpoints: Mathematical Perspective and Fractal Geometry in Art.