A Celebration of Mathematics Editor Vickie Kearn

This month, across the world, we have celebrated the enduring contributions of all women. For those of us at PUP, it is a chance as well to focus on a particularly generous, intelligent, and dynamic publisher, Vickie Kearn. In April, Vickie will retire from the Press after 18 years of synergistic and inspiring collaborations in math and computer science publishing, leaving us with a library of books that have educated and entertained millions, billions, and zillions of readers (borrowing from the title of one of her recent acquisitions).

Vickie has also been a powerful role model for women in STEM publishing, and one who empowered a population of publishers, myself included, and our new math editor Susannah Shoemaker as another. Vickie’s strength as a competitive publisher set the bar dauntingly high, but in that competition was also always an admirable collaboration, knowing that a cohort of us were changing the face of scholarly STEM publishing. It has been such a great privilege to be a colleague of Vickie’s since 2017, to travel to a math meeting with her, to meet incredibly creative authors with whom she has worked, and to learn from her at weekly project meetings. The PUP math list, particularly the popular math list, has grown exponentially and in multiple dimensions under Vickie’s leadership. If there are theorems or rules in math publishing, I would attribute these to Vickie’s rule: be smart, be curious, be generous, and be strong.

–Christie Henry

CH: Some say math is its own language. How did you learn to speak it?

I grew up in Venezuela and the English school only went through the 9th grade, so when I was 15, I went away to boarding school in North Carolina. There were only 125 girls in the whole school and there were two math teachers. One taught the girls who liked math and another taught those who did not like math. My class was very small since fewer of us liked math. Elsie Nunn was my teacher for three years and she made me fall in love with math. Before she taught anything new, she taught us about the person responsible for what we were about to learn. There was always a face behind the numbers, a person who had a family and hobbies. I found I could connect with these people. We had math club every day after school and she always had wonderful stories to tell. When I went to the University of Richmond, I knew I was going to major in math. This led to an unexpected benefit and a bit of a surprise. In the late 1960’s, University of Richmond was a Baptist school, and the classes for the men and women were held on separate sides of a lake. The one exception was that the upper level math classes were on the men’s side. Men and women were only allowed to talk with one another on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday, but I was able to talk with them every day because we had math class together. The surprise for me was that I was the only female math major. This felt strange at times, but Ms. Nunn had prepared me well and I got along fine with my classmates. The classes were small and we stuck together because unlike many people at UR we were more interested in math and less interested in parties.

CH: How can we continue to empower girls and women in STEM- as authors and publishers?

Based on conversations I have had with other women my age, I have had a very easy time in my career. This could be because I only have an undergraduate degree and did not experience the problems that arise in graduate school and a career as a mathematician. However, I would advise young women to join an organization that focuses on confidence building, like the Girl Scouts. I would also recommend finding a mentor—someone to look up to who can advise about a field that has long been male dominated. After I got my undergraduate degree, I taught school for 8 years, five of them in elementary school and 3 teaching math in junior high school. Most of the elementary teachers were female and the math teachers were both men and women. Although all of my college classmates in my math courses were male, it wasn’t until I went into publishing and attended my first mathematics meeting that I realized how gender specific math was.  I believe that as more women with math PhD degrees publish books and give plenary talks at conferences, the more visible they will be, and in turn, young women majoring in math will feel more a part of the mathematics community. It is critical for publishers to encourage female mathematicians to write scholarly books and ask them to review books under consideration for publication. We need more women who are advising publishers on the decisions we are making about the books we are publishing and not rely only on male scholars to help us make these decisions. Publishers need to ask female scholars to blurb books and endorse scholarly publications. There are many terrific female mathematicians and we need to increase their visibility in the book publishing community.

CH: You have published textbooks, popular math books, graphic works, works of magic, and monographs, all successful. What are the 5 essentials of a great math book?

A great book is not always measured by the number of copies it sells. It is sometimes measured by the impact it makes on a small community of scholars. Did it provide that one missing piece of information that led to the solution of an unsolved problem? Did it inspire a high school student to major in math? Did it turn a “math hater” into someone curious about math? Nevertheless, they all can benefit from some essential advice.

First, I feel that the most essential thing is that the author writes on something that she or he is passionate about. If this is the case, the reader will be engaged and love reading the book. Second, the author needs to clearly define the audience. No book can be for everyone. If the author defines the audience that way, then the book will be for no one. Third, the author needs to write for the audience and keep the mathematical level consistent throughout the book. One problem I have had with authors writing for audiences without an advanced math degree is over and under explaining math concepts. Fourth on my list is authors often introduce terms without defining them or define them by introducing other terms that need elaboration but instead lead to further confusion. Always provide examples that clarify definitions. Finally, if you have included any jokes or explanation marks in your manuscript, please delete them before sending the manuscript to your editor.

CH: What are the 5 math books you would gift to every aspiring female mathematician to learn about the art and science of math? 

Before I reveal my suggestions, I would like to say that I think that the books I have suggested would make anyone want to learn about the art and science of math. They are particularly important to me because they point out the personal relationships that can develop out of the love of a subject. It is so hard for me to select only five because each book one selects to publish is special. Each one has a backstory. Most of my choices are, OF COURSE, Princeton University Press books because they are the ones I know the best and ones I have the time to read. 

My first suggestion is not a book but a wonderful website, MacTutor History of Mathematics. I have spent many hours there and there is a link to Female Mathematicians, which is updated regularly.

The Calculus of Friendship: What a Teacher and a Student Learned about Life while Corresponding about Math by Steven Strogatz (Princeton University Press) is a book about a teacher and a student and their love of calculus as chronicled over thirty years through their letters. As you know by now, my love of math came from my high school math teacher. This author tried to help me find her. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful. Later, at my 50th high school reunion I found out that she had passed away but it was the act of trying to find her that is illustrative of how tightly knit and wonderful I find the math community to be.

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (Picador) was translated from Japanese. This is a novel about a math professor whose memory, due to an accident, is reset every 80 minutes, his housekeeper, and her young son. It is a wonderful story about how mathematics can bind three very different people.

Mathematics and Art: A Cultural History by Lynn Gamwell (Princeton University Press) covers the history of mathematics through exquisite works of art from antiquity to the present. I believe that learning about the history of mathematics is as important as the mathematics itself because you understand the time and place in which it is set and the math takes on more meaning.

The Seduction of Curves: The Lines of Beauty that Connect Mathematics, Art and the Nude by Allan McRobie (Princeton University Press) connects mathematics with art and engineering. This book focuses on the seven curves that are the basis of the catastrophe theory of mathematician René Thom. It is an accessible discussion of their role in nature, science, engineering, architecture, art, and other areas. Also included are their use in the work of David Hockney, Henry Moore, Anish Kapoor, and the delicate sculptures of Naum Gabo. The final two chapters focus on the collaborative work and friendship of Thom and Salvador Dalí. I searched for a book that could explain the work of René Thom for over twenty years before I found this one so it is pretty special.

CH: If you could invite five historic women mathematicians to join you at a dinner, who would they be, and why?

There are so many wonderful women mathematicians, historical and modern, that it is hard to choose just five. There are also many women who have made terrific contributions to mathematics who do not have advanced math degrees. See the references at the end of this post for additional resources.

At the top of my list would be Olga Taussky-Todd. Early in my career, I had the privilege of working with her on a book and got to know her a bit. I would love to spend more time with her. Not only was she smart, she had a great sense of humor. She made many contributions to the field of linear algebra, as did her husband, John, and we spent many hours talking about results in which, at the time, was one of my favorite topics in math. After Olga died, John gave me the poster from which the photo here was taken.

Emmy Noether is very important to me as I published a biography of her in my first position as an acquiring editor. I learned a lot about her work and would like to know more about her as a person. She has been described by many as the most important woman in the history of math. She developed the theories of rings, fields, and algebras.

Sophie Germain and I share a birthday, so of course I have to have dinner with her. Due to the great opposition against women in mathematics Sophie was not able to have a career in mathematics. Even her parents opposed her. She learned from books in her father’s library, often secretly after everyone was asleep. In spite of this she made many contributions to math such as her work on Fermat’s Last Theorem.

CH: What are five of your favorite mathematical puzzles?

Instead of listing single puzzles, I’ve chosen my favorite puzzles as types or groups. The following are some illustrations.

Word logic puzzles are fascinating and can also drive you crazy. Here is an example from Brain Food:

At a family reunion were the following people: one grandfather, one grandmother, two fathers, two mothers, four children, three grandchildren, one brother, two sisters, two sons, two daughters, one father-in-law, one mother-in-law, and one daughter-in-law. But not as many people attended as it sounds. How many were there, and who were they? Go to Rinkworks.com for more excellent puzzles and the answer to this one. However, you should try to solve it first.

Kakuro is like a crossword puzzle with numbers. Each word” must add up to the number provided in the clue above it or to the left. Words can only use the numbers 1 through 9, and a given number can only be used once in a word. Every kakuro puzzle has one and only one solution and can be solved through logic alone.

Martin Gardner was a master puzzler. If you don’t know who he is, or his puzzles (like cutting the pie, twiddled bolts, and the mutilated chessboard) head over to martin-gardner.org You will be glad you did.

I love playing Yahtzee which is more a game of logic, luck, and chance but always a lot of fun.
Jenga also does not strictly fall into the category of math but a lot of my math friends love playing it and it often appears at math meetings.

CH: how should we best compute the impact of mathematical publishing on the world?

From teaching in rural and inner-city schools for 8 years, I learned that there were so many students and adults who knew nothing about surviving in an increasingly complicated world that depends on a mastery of basic math skills. Over the past 42 years, I have seen the publication of numerous wonderful books for this very audience. These are books coming from university presses, commercial presses and society presses. These are books that have been published for the “math haters” and those who think math is hard. They present math through music and art and in graphic novels, detective stories, and puzzle books. There are ancillary materials posted on websites where readers can manipulate equations and discover new math of their own invention. As the number of books being published continues to increase, more people are clearly reading them. I am finding that there is much more enthusiasm for mathematics than there was four decades ago. There has been an increase in math clubs, math circles are very active, and the Girl Scouts announce many new STEM badges each year. I believe that publishers will continue to produce high quality books from mathematical writers around the world. This includes books that are being translated from one language into another, fostering an understanding of cultural differences through books about mathematics. I take every opportunity I can to tell people about the cool factor of math. If you are reading this post and have not discovered the wonder and empowerment of math, I’d advise you to go find a mathematician or anyone who has and ask them to let you in on the secret.

Additional Resources for inspiring information on women in STEM
MacTutor
Grandma Got STEM
A Mighty Girl