An interview with John Stillwell on Elements of Mathematics

elements of mathematics jacketNot all topics that are part of today’s elementary mathematics were always considered as such, and great mathematical advances and discoveries had to occur in order for certain subjects to become “elementary.” Elements of Mathematics: From Euclid to Gödel, by John Stillwell gives readers, from high school students to professional mathematicians, the highlights of elementary mathematics and glimpses of the parts of math beyond its boundaries.

You’ve been writing math books for a long time now. What do you think is special about this one?

JS: In some ways it is a synthesis of ideas that occur fleetingly in some of my previous books: the interplay between numbers, geometry, algebra, infinity, and logic. In all my books I try to show the interaction between different fields of mathematics, but this is one more unified than any of the others. It covers some fields I have not covered before, such as probability, but also makes many connections I have not made before. I would say that it is also more reflective and philosophical—it really sums up all my experience in mathematics.

Who do you expect will enjoy reading this book?

JS: Well I hope my previous readers will still be interested! But for anyone who has not read my previous work, this might be the best place to start. It should suit anyone who is broadly interested in math, from high school to professional level. For the high school students, the book is a guide to the math they will meet in the future—they may understand only parts of it, but I think it will plant seeds for their future mathematical development. For the professors—I believe there will be many parts that are new and enlightening, judging from the number of times I have often heard “I never knew that!” when speaking on parts of the book to academic audiences.

Does the “Elements” in the title indicate that this book is elementary?

JS: I have tried to make it as simple as possible but, as Einstein is supposed to have said, “not simpler”. So, even though it is mainly about elementary mathematics it is not entirely elementary. It can’t be, because I also want to describe the limits of elementary mathematics—where and why mathematics becomes difficult. To get a realistic appreciation of math, it helps to know that some difficulties are unavoidable. Of course, for mathematicians, the difficulty of math is a big attraction.

What is novel about your approach?

JS: It tries to say something precise and rigorous about the boundaries of elementary math. There is now a field called “reverse mathematics” which aims to find exactly the right axioms to prove important theorems. For example, it has been known for a long time—possibly since Euclid—that the parallel axiom is the “right” axiom to prove the Pythagorean theorem. Much more recently, reverse mathematics has found that certain assumptions about infinity are the right axioms to prove basic theorems of analysis. This research, which has only appeared in specialist publications until now, helps explain why infinity appears so often at the boundaries of elementary math.

Does your book have real world applications?

JS: Someone always asks that question. I would say that if even one person understands mathematics better because of my book, then that is a net benefit to the world. The modern world runs on mathematics, so understanding math is necessary for anyone who wants to understand the world.

John Stillwell is professor of mathematics at the University of San Francisco. His many books include Mathematics and Its History and Roads to Infinity. His most recent book is Elements of Mathematics: From Euclid to Gödel.

An interview with Biancamaria Fontana, author of Germaine de Staël: A Political Portrait

Germaine de StaelGermaine de Staël (1766–1817) is perhaps best known today as a novelist, literary critic, and outspoken and independent thinker. Yet she was also a prominent figure in politics during the French Revolution. In her new book, Germaine de Staël: A Political PortraitBiancamaria Fontana sheds new light on this often overlooked aspect of Staël’s life and work, bringing to life her unique experience as a political actor in a world where women had no place. Recently, Fontana took the time to answer some questions about her book.

Though she is probably better known in France than in the English-speaking world, Germaine de Staël is already the subject of various biographies and literary studies. Why write another book about her?

BF: Staël’s reputation is indeed very high in her capacity as a novelist and literary critic; but her political activities and ideas are not so well known. Only her reputation as Napoleon’s vocal opponent has survived. But during the French Revolution, when she was in her early twenties, she was a very prominent political actor who tried to unite political factions and to promote the cause of modern representative government, though of course she could not sit in the National Assembly, except as a spectator; she was also barred from becoming a minister like some of her (male) political friends who owed their positions in government to her. As to her works on political theory, they are more original than it is generally assumed: she addressed novel issues such as the role of public opinion in modern society, the character of national cultures and the prospects of European unification.

She seems to have led a very glamorous life, frequenting castes and royal courts, associating with the high aristocracy, dining with monarchs…or is this just a modern fantasy?

BF: No doubt wealth was a very important factor in Staël’s life: her father, Jacques Necker, was a Swiss banker who became minister of the king of France; when she married at nineteen in 1786 she had one of the largest dowries in Europe, and, unusually, she remained in control of her own fortune even after her marriage. Her social position was also the source of much hostility: aristocrats despised her, as the daughter of a rich parvenu, while radical revolutionaries assumed she must necessarily be an agent of reaction. Although she did live in castles and palaces, she herself did not care much about high life; what mattered to her was being independent, and especially being able to associate with the people she regarded as politically and intellectually interesting, including some sovereigns old and new. One must not forget that hers was an age of extraordinary social mobility (think of Napoleon!), in which personal qualities proved often more important than rank and social status.

To what extent was her intellectual reputation conditioned by her gender? Can she be described as a feminist?

BF: The fact that she was a woman has certainly led even serious historians to assume that her political views were derivative and echoed those of the men close to her (while the reverse was often true). Similarly commentators tend to describe her as an over-active salon hostess and to regard her political canvassing as backstage intrigue. She was very conscious of the fact that being a woman made her more vulnerable to public attacks (indeed she was often the target of sexual insults and calumnies), and took great care to avoid any occasion for scandal. But she did not spend much time complaining about such limitations: she was very pragmatic and took them in stride, making the most of the opportunities offered to her. She was not a militant feminist like, say, Mary Wollstonecraft, but she gave an extraordinary demonstration of what a politically minded woman was capable of.

We tend to consider celebrity as an essentially contemporary phenomenon. Yet in the book you describe Staël as uneasy about her own celebrity. Was this really already an issue in the 18th century?

BF: The development and greater freedom of the press in the 18th century, and especially during the French Revolution, did promote the phenomenon of celebrity, as writers and artists, generals and politicians competed for public attention. Indeed some contemporary observers were very worried by what they saw as the replacement of true moral and intellectual distinction with ephemeral fame. Staël was especially concerned with the decline of aesthetic and moral standards, as she considered the quality of public discourse an essential precondition for the political development of modern societies. She was also embarrassed by the fact that her unusual situation made her famous, before she had the opportunity to “deserve” to be known by the wider public. All her life she tried very hard to merit the status she finally achieved, that of a major international intellectual figure.

What, if anything, can we learn from her views on politics?

BF: Staël is generally described as a “liberal” thinker, someone who supported the values of freedom, moderate government and the limitation of power against the authoritarianism of both monarchical and popular regimes. This of course is broadly speaking true; however what is really interesting about her views is not the fact that she defended a set of abstract values, but that she showed how difficult it was, in any real context, to put them into practice: how can you be a liberal when faced with political instability, international economic crisis, terrorism or military conquest? What I find especially prophetic about her writings is the fact that she saw popular opinion as the true source of the stability and legitimacy of any political system. The question she could not stop asking herself was: what does really give shape to collective mentalities and sentiments? Is it education, cultural or religious identities, or simply the ephemeral influence of fashionable views and ideologies?

This is probably a bit far fetched, but while preparing this book you must have spent some time trying to get inside her world; what would have been like, in your view, to be in her company, as a friend or social acquaintance?

BF: She was, by all accounts a fascinating conversationalist, a great flatterer, but also impossibly overbearing if you had anything to do with her at close range. Her energy, her relentless activity and appetite for company could be exhausting. However she was an extremely loyal friend, especially to women. She was very generous, did not take offence easily, and during the difficult years of the Revolution helped and supported the less fortunate of her acquaintances, including some who had never been especially nice to her. When Marie Antoinette was on trial, she took the risk of publishing a pamphlet in her defense, in spite of the fact that the queen had always treated her with disdain. Even in the writings of those contemporaries who disliked her, you cannot find a single episode in which she acted in a mean or resentful manner.

Biancamaria Fontana is professor of the history of political ideas at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. Her books include Montaigne’s Politics (Princeton), Benjamin Constant and the Post-Revolutionary Mind, and Rethinking the Politics of Commercial Society. Most recently she has written Germaine de Staël: A Political Portrait.

Stephen Heard: Write like a scientist

the scientist's guide to writing heardScientific writing should be as clear and impactful as other styles, but the process of producing such writing has its own unique challenges. Stephen Heard, scientist, graduate advisor, and editor speaks from personal experience in his book The Scientist’s Guide to Writing: How to Write More Easily and Effectively Throughout Your Scientific Career. Heard’s focus on the writing process emphasizes the pursuit of clarity, and his tips on submissions, coauthorship, citations, and peer reviews are crucial for those starting to seek publication. Recently, Heard agreed to answer a few questions about his book.

What made you decide to write a book about scientific writing?

SH: I think the first spark was when I realized I give the same writing advice to all my students, over and over, and caught myself thinking it would be easier to just write it all down once. That was foolish, of course: writing the book wasn’t easy at all! But before long, my rationale shifted. The book became less about stuff I wanted to tell everyone else, and more about stuff I wished somebody had told me. A lot of us get into science without much writing experience, and without thinking much about how important a role scientific writing plays – and when we start doing it, we discover that doing it well isn’t easy. It took me many years to become a reasonably competent scientific writer, and the book includes a lot of the things I discovered along the way. I was surprised to discover that writing the book made me a better writer. I think reading it can help too.

Surely there a bunch of other scientific-writing books out there? What do you do differently?

SH: Yes – and some of them are quite good! But I wanted to write something different. I’m not sure my book says anything that no one else knows about outlining or paragraph structure or citation formatting (for example). But I thought there was a lot of value in a book that pays attention to the writer as much as the writing: to the way writers behave as they write, and to ways in which some deliberate and scientific attention to our behavior might help us write faster and better. I’ve also discovered that knowing a bit about the history and culture of scientific writing can help us understand the way we write (and why). Just as one example: knowing something about the history of the Methods section, and how it’s changed over the last 350 years as scientists have struggled with the question of how scientific studies gain authority, can help us decide how to write our own Methods sections. I also tackle the question of whether there’s a place in scientific writing for beauty or for humor – something that gets discussed so rarely that it seems almost like a taboo.

Finally, I wanted to write a book that was really engaging: to show that thinking about writing (as we all need to) needn’t be dry and pedantic. So readers might be surprised, in a book about scientific writing, to find mentions of Voltaire’s lover, SpongeBob SquarePants, and the etymology of the word fart. But I hope they’ll also find that there are lessons in all those things – and more – for scientists who want to write better and more quickly.

You also go into a lot of depth about the review and publication process. Why are these things important to cover alongside the writing process?

SH: Well, maybe that isn’t “writing”, strictly speaking – but it’s an essential part of getting one’s scientific writing in the hands of readers. All of us want our scientific writing to be read, and to be cited, and to help move our fields forward. So it’s not enough to write a good manuscript; we have to be able to shepherd it through the process of submission, review, revision, and eventual acceptance. Early in my own career I found this process especially mysterious. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about it – by publishing quite a few papers myself, but also by reviewing hundreds of manuscripts and acting as an Associate Editor for hundreds more. So I have a pretty good overview of the publishing process, from both the writer’s and the journal’s perspective. There’s no particular reason that process has to be mysterious, and I thought it would be helpful to draw back the curtain.

Is scientific writing really that different from other kinds of writing?

SH: Both yes and no! Of course, there are technical issues that matter in scientific writing, like ways of handling text dense with numbers, or ways we handle citations. There are also more cultural ways in which scientific writing is its own thing. One of them is that we’ve developed a writing form that efficiently conveys material to other people who are familiar with that form. Our conventional division of papers into Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion is a piece of that. Our writing (and our publication process) have evolved in many other ways that aren’t quite the same as you’d find in the humanities, or in writing about science for the public. That’s why there are books about scientific writing, not just about writing. But on another level, good scientific writing is like most other good writing: clear, concise, engaging whenever possible, and did I mention clear? Nothing is more important than clarity! As a result of this similarity, people who learn good scientific writing are well positioned for any career that involves writing – which is to say, pretty much any career.

Do you think of yourself as a good writer?

SH: No! And to loop back to the first question, that’s a big part of why I wrote the book. There are a very few natural writers out there – geniuses – for whom good writing just seems to come naturally. But these are rare. I’m like nearly everyone else: writing is hard work for me. It’s a craft I’ve learned over the years by practicing, by thinking deliberately about how I do it, and by reading advice from books that have gone before mine. It’s still hard work, but that’s OK: I’m willing to put in the effort for my writing product to seem pretty good, even if my writing process is laborious. If I’d understood earlier in my career that most writers are just like me, I would have been less crushed by the discovery that my papers didn’t just write themselves! Every scientific writer can do what I’ve done: practice the craft and improve at it. I hope my book can help.

Stephen B. Heard is professor of biology at the University of New Brunswick in Canada and associate editor of the journal American Naturalist. His most recent book is The Scientist’s Guide to Writing: How to Write More Easily and Effectively Throughout Your Scientific Career.

Follow the wild bees with Thomas D. Seeley

following the wild bees seeleyBee hunting—in which one captures and sumptuously feeds wild bees, and then releases and follows them back to their secret residence—is virtually unknown today, though it was once widely practiced. Thomas D. Seeley, world authority on honey bees, vividly explores the exhilarating pastime in his new book Following the Wild Bees: The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting. A unique meditation on the natural world as well as a how-to guide, the book provides history and science about the craft alongside gorgeous photos and helpful diagrams.

Click through the gallery below to see some of Seeley’s essential tools for bee hunting as well as fascinating photographs captured during the hunt.

Justin E. H. Smith on six types of philosophers

Smith jacketThe Natural Philosopher, the Sage, the Gadfly, the Ascetic, the Mandarin, and the Courtier. What would the global history of philosophy look like if it were told as a series of job descriptions—ones that might have been used to fill the position of philosopher at different times and places over the past 2,500 years? The Philosopher: A History in Six Types by Justin E. H. Smith does just that, providing a new way of looking at the history of philosophy. Why six types? Are some types superior to others? Recently, Smith took the time to answer these questions and more about his latest book.

This book doesn’t have a conventional structure or approach. In addition to straightforward scholarly exposition, it also contains autobiographical elements, as well as what appear to be fictional excursuses, written from the perspective of invented historical figures who represent different philosophical types. What are the reasons for this experimental approach?

JS: When I began speaking with my editor at Princeton University Press, what intrigued him most were some reflections of mine on the relationship between the activity of a philosopher and the practical need we all have to earn money and pay the bills. I had recently moved to Paris, was having trouble making ends meet with my modest French university salary, and so had begun experimenting with some ‘freelance’ philosophical dialogues with people willing to pay—mostly Anglo tourists who were looking to experience the frisson of sitting in a Parisian café and talking about love and death and stuff just like Sartre and De Beauvoir. So when I began writing, that personal experience served as the point of departure for reflecting on the long history of the problematic relationship between money and philosophy—after all, one of the most common foundation myths of the tradition is that it began when Socrates refused remuneration, thus liberating whatever it is we’re doing qua philosophers from whatever it is the Sophists had been doing. This approach then sort of expanded to other parts of the book: launching into an investigation of some aspect of the definition of philosophy by revealing something about my own personal engagement with it.

As for the fictional elements, I suppose this is just an irrepressible symptom of the sort of writing I’ve come to believe can best get across what I’m trying to do philosophically. I’m with Margaret Cavendish, who explicitly lays out at the beginning of her delirious 1666 novel, Blazing World, how it is that fantasy can be harnessed and utilized for the exploration of philosophical questions in ways for which the faculty of reason alone might be less ideally suited. I faced some resistance to these portions of the book from some readers of drafts. They wanted me to more clearly mark off and explain what I was doing in them, somewhat as Martha Nussbaum does when she introduces a fictional figure in one of her books to guide as through the exposition of arguments that follow. But I didn’t want my characters to serve simply as didactic aides. I wanted rather for the work to be, at least in part, a work of fiction, a product, like Cavendish’s, of the literary imagination.

Is this book philosophy, or is it about philosophy?

JS: I don’t know that there can really be a valid distinction here. By the same token, I’ve never understood what people mean when they talk about ‘metaphilosophy’. We’re all just trying to come to a clearer understanding of the nature of this activity we’re engaged in, in order, in part, to better engage in it. Philosophy is peculiar in that a great deal of effort is expended, by those who profess to practice it, in seeking to determine where its boundaries are, and what falls outside of them. This is a problem sedimentologists, say, don’t have, and one might easily suspect that philosophy is essentially constituted by this activity, that there’s not much left over to do once philosophers have stopped trying to determine what philosophy is not. I think my approach, the transregional and wide-focused historical survey of the very different ways people we think of as philosophers have themselves conceived what they were doing, helps to establish this point: ‘philosophy’ is said in many ways, to paraphrase Aristotle. I’m sure some critics who have some stake in portraying philosophy as essentially thus rather than so, or vice versa, will be quick to say that this book is ‘not philosophy’. But I think I can survive that, and in fact I think they’ll be helping to support my thesis.

Why six types? Is this list exhaustive or arbitrary?

JS: I make it very clear in the book that there has been no transcendental deduction of all possible types of philosopher, or anything like that. My approach is more like the one Kant accused Aristotle of taking in his elaboration of the ten categories: his listing of them continued until he grew tired. I also make clear that what we usually see when we look at actual philosophers is hybrids of two or more of the types, or different dimensions of the types becoming apparent at different moments in their work. The point of thinking in terms of types is to help reveal the degree to which the expectations placed on a person occupying the social role of the philosopher will determine in part the range of questions or problems that philosopher considers worthy of attention. I think of types as social categories, and for this reason certain social circumstances need to obtain in order for a given type of philosopher to make an appearance. Is an amateur observer of the way snails copulate in Central Park in 2015 a philosopher? No, but someone who was doing the same thing in the Jardin des Plantes in 1665 probably was.

You seem to be more sympathetic to some types than to others. Why?

JS: My training as a scholar, and so to speak my spiritual home base, is in the 17th century, which I see as a brief period of tremendous openness, of liberality and of true love of knowledge, inserted in the middle of what has generally been, philosophically speaking, a long, dark history of tedious scholasticism, provincialism, and submission to authority. Not coincidentally, this is also the period in which most of the philosophical action was going on outside of universities.

While I didn’t mean to structure things in this way when I began writing, as it turned out the chapters, each of which focuses on a particular type, move from my most to my least favorite. The first chapter is on what I call the ‘Curiosa’ (or, masculine, ‘Curiosus’), and the fictional personnage is inspired by none other than Margaret Cavendish. She represents the intellectual virtue that I believe is most lacking in university-based philosophy since at least the moment, sometime around the end of the 18th century, when the natural sciences broke off from philosophy and ‘natural philosophy’ ceased to be a vital and central concern of philosophers. My least favorite figure is the Courtier, whose fictional representative is based loosely on Jan Sten, the Soviet philosopher who was called in to tutor Stalin on Hegel and dialectical materialism and whatever other profound things the dictator was having trouble understanding, and who was eventually purged in the Moscow show trials. Serves that groveling worm right, we’re inclined to say at our safe distance, but the truth is many of us are doing something somewhat similar when we bend ourselves to the reigning ideology of market-driven university research, and pretend to ourselves and others that that’s still philosophy.

You draw on many sources that are not traditionally considered philosophy in the narrow sense. What is the purpose of this?

JS: I just don’t know how one could possibly coherently define the corpus of texts that deserve to be included in, as it were, the imaginary library of the history of philosophy. Recently (too recently to be included in the book) I’ve been thinking a great deal about the philosophical problem of the concept of ‘world’, as it developed in the 17th century, and the way in which this development is central for our understanding of the metaphysics of possibility, counterfactuals, one of Kant’s three transcendental Ideas, and so on. I’ve learned a great deal about the history of this concept from the work, in French, of Édouard Mehl. One thing I’ve come to appreciate is that this concept simply cannot be adequately understood without reading early modern novels, particularly the ones we might call ‘proto-science fiction’, such as Cyrano de Bergerac’s Les états et empires de la Lune. Am I supposed to exclude that just because it’s not a treatise? But then I will fail to adequately understand the philosophical problem that interests me, and that would be bad.

Often we are willing to pay attention to things that canonical philosophers say that are, quite frankly, no less fantastical than 17th-century lunar fantasy novels, simply because they are already categorized as canonical philosophers and therefore, we presume, everything they say is of interest. So Leibniz says that every drop of water in a pond is a world full of beings, and that is poetic and wonderful, but is it any more worthy of our attention as philosophers than when, say, Walt Whitman finds that he incorporates “gneiss, coal, long-threaded moss”? Both capture something profound about nature and our place in it. Whitman says it better, in my view, and there’s no reason not to pay attention to it, as philosophers, on the grounds that Whitman didn’t also come up with the principle of sufficient reason or the infinitesimal calculus.

In the end you describe the work as ‘aporetic’? Does this indicate a failure?

JS: No, it’s philosophy’s fault.

Justin E. H. Smith is university professor of the history and philosophy of science at the Université Paris Diderot—Paris VII. He is also the author of Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference: Race in Early Modern Philosophy and Divine Machines: Leibniz and the Sciences of Life (both Princeton). He writes frequently for the New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, Cabinet Magazine, and other publications.


Ken Reed on the Princeton Legacy Library

The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since our founding in 1905. Using the latest print-on-demand technology, we have been making this important scholarly heritage available for a new generation of readers. The effort has been particularly relevant in developing nations, where access was not previously available. Over 2,300 titles are currently back in print and over 27,000 have been sold, with the top selling titles hailing from a wide range of disciplines. And now, all the existing Princeton Legacy Library titles have been released in hardcover format as well.

Today PUP sat down for a Q&A with our Digital Production Manager, Ken Reed, who has been overseeing the monumental effort to reconnect readers to this treasure trove of scholarship.

What is the Princeton Legacy Library (PLL) project? How was it conceived?

For years, the press had been interested in bringing out-of-print titles back into print. After much discussion among our senior management, the project received approval and the Press moved ahead with a massive digitization project. The project had two primary goals: bringing as many out-of-print titles back into print as possible, and a much more ambitious goal to create digital assets for all our publications, no matter the status.

To that end, nearly 3,000 titles will end up in the Princeton Legacy Library project. So far we have brought nearly 2,400 titles back into print, both as paper and now as hard case. We are also creating web PDFs for each title for library aggregators.

The titles in the project range from 1915–1999—nearly 100 years of the Press’s scholarship is represented in this series.

Can you explain some of the production details for the PLL titles? How did PUP go about digitizing the books and bringing them back into print?

All of the titles were scanned at a high quality, but our goal was to preserve the text as is. So, we haven’t made any revisions to the original content. Every title has been reviewed for quality prior to publication—a very time consuming process, indeed.

Since in most cases we did not have access to the original covers in print-ready format, we decided early on to have a series design cover created. This was done by the distinguished graphic design firm, Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv.

Our partnership with Ingram was crucial in bringing these titles back into print. We have set up these titles at Ingram through their print-on-demand (POD) technology. Additionally, the covers were auto-generated from our metadata by Ingram, except in some cases where we had to manually adjust them.

Of course, the book interiors and covers were only part of the process. Reviewing and updating the metadata was a key task that had to be undertaken.

Can you explain the metadata process in more detail?

Since we have titles going back to 1915, we had to ensure that we had all the necessary metadata. This includes confirming the bibliographic information—title, subtitle, author—as well as subject codes for the book industry and our web site.

Perhaps more importantly, we had to ensure that we had book descriptions for all of these titles. We digitized seasonal catalogs going back to the 1960s from our own records, and the archives at the Princeton University Library had seasonal catalogs going back to 1914. The Library digitized these catalogs for us, and have been very supportive of the project overall. In fact, from time to time we need to re-scan pages from book interiors, and we often use Library books for this purpose.

Finally, we reviewed all the titles for rights information before publication. Since we were dealing with titles that have been out-of-print for years, in many cases rights have reverted to the authors.

Browse the Princeton Legacy Library here.

Taxing the Rich

Taxing the RichIf you didn’t file your taxes on April 15th, you can breathe a sigh of relief. Thanks to the Emancipation Day holiday in the District of Columbia, the tax deadline was switched to April 18 this year. Already ahead of the game? While the final hours tick down, we have just the history of fiscal fairness for you.

In Taxing the Rich, Kenneth Scheve and David Stasavage analyze the history of taxes and take a look at when and why countries tax their wealthiest citizens. The authors argue that governments don’t tax the rich simply because of striking inequality—they do it when its citizens believe that such taxes compensate for the state unfairly privileging the wealthy. What matters most is society’s views on how the inequality is being generated in the first place.

The Atlantic recently wrote about the book, including quotes from Scheve and Stasavage:

Relative to the past 200 years of U.S. history, how heavily are the rich being taxed today? Kenneth Scheve and David Stasavage, professors of political science at Stanford University and New York University respectively, looked into when countries have taxed their wealthiest citizens most heavily, and what societal conditions might have produced those tax rates. In a project that took five years, the two constructed databases of tax rates and policies in 20 countries over the last two centuries in order to answer those questions. They recently published this research in a book, Taxing the Rich: A History of Fiscal Fairness in the United States and Europe.

One of their motivations for starting the project was a disconnect they noticed between rising inequality and static tax rates. “With inequality rising over the last three or four decades, why have there not been public policies that seem to address that in an important and substantive way?” says Scheve. But while it would seem intuitive that taxes would increase at the times when inequality is highest, Scheve and Stasavage found that this relationship hasn’t held true over the course of history.

You can read the full piece in The Atlantic here, and an exclusive interview with Scheve and Stasavage here.

What do sharks have to do with democracy? Christopher Achen & Larry Bartels explain

democracy for realists achen jacketAre modern ideas of American democracy fundamentally misguided? Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels examines the faults of current democratic logic that have led the majority of people to make misinformed opinions about politics.  As Achen and Bartels note, “politics is often not very cheery. But facing our problems honestly is the first step toward doing something about them.” In this spirit, the authors have taken time to explain their reasons for writing this book, what conventional ideas about democracy they oppose, the presidential primaries, and even shark attacks.

Why did the two of you write this book?

CA & LB: Working at different universities in the late 1990s, we discovered that we had come to quite similar intuitions about how American democracy works. Those intuitions were very different from what most people think, including most of our political scientist friends. We decided to write a book together. But turning those preliminary, unconventional thoughts into a serious argument backed by detailed evidence took more than a decade.

What are the conventional American ideas about democracy that you oppose?

CA & LB: Fundamentally, we Americans have abandoned the ideas of the Founders as expressed in the Federalist Papers, and we have substituted notions derived ultimately from the French Enlightenment. We think of ourselves as thoughtful, informed, rational, fundamentally decent people. We imagine that the problems of government are due to bad politicians and corrupt institutions. Thus most of us believe that, to the extent possible, government should be turned over to all of us as citizens, with as little role for governmental institutions and elected officials as possible. We think of that as “democracy,” and we believe that the more democracy, the better.

The problem is that a mountain of social science evidence has accumulated about our human capacities to run the government solely from the voting booth. That evidence shows that people are just people, with all the limited horizons, prejudices, and mistakes that characterize all of us as human beings. The judgments of the voters are an important part of democracy, but they cannot be the only part. Just as the various branches of government require balancing by the others, so also the judgments of voters need to be balanced by other societal and governmental institutions, including parties and elected officials. To think otherwise is to delude and flatter ourselves with an inflated view of our capacities, as the Founders understood.

We heard that there is something about shark attacks in this book. What do sharks have to do with democracy?

CA & LB: Many thoughtful scholars believe that a democratic election is primarily a referendum on the performance of the incumbents. If the people in office have performed well, the voters re-elect them. If not, the voters throw the bums out. That sounds good until one realizes that the voters have to know whether the incumbents really are bums. If things have gone badly lately, is that the government’s fault? Can the voters sort out credit and blame?

This is where the sharks enter our book. In the summer of 1916, New Jersey was plagued by a series of shark attacks along its Atlantic shore. Four people died. Just as in the “Jaws” movies, which were based on the New Jersey events, people stayed away from the beach in droves, and the Jersey Shore economy was devastated. Woodrow Wilson was running for re-election that summer. He and his administration did everything they could to solve the problem, but then as now, no one could control sharks. The attacks were no one’s fault, but the voters bit back anyway. In the Shore towns, Wilson’s vote in November dropped precipitously.

The irrational voting due to the sharks is not a special case. We also show that the voters blame the incumbents when it rains too much or too little. We estimate, for example, that Al Gore lost seven states in 2000 because they were too dry or too wet—more than enough to cost him the presidency. In these cases and in many other ways, the voters are often overwhelmed by the challenges of casting a well-informed, sensible vote.

In light of those ideas, how are you thinking about the presidential primaries this year?

CA & LB: We finished our book well before this year’s primaries began. We feel that every primary season illustrates the problems and the political forces that we have identified, although this year may furnish particularly clear examples. Our central argument is that people primarily vote their social, religious, and political identities, not their ideas or their policy preferences. The identities create the preferences, not the other way around. Voters typically know a candidate only from television and the Internet, and they look for a politician who reinforces and validates their own group loyalties. Particularly when economic times are hard, those identities can become quite antagonistic.

As a result, neophytes, demagogues, and extremists often do well in primaries. The people in politics who know them personally, and who know how unsuitable they are to be president, are cut out of the process, or have only a limited role, perhaps as convention super-delegates. The result is many foolish, even dangerous choices. We Americans think that this way of hurting ourselves is “more democratic.” But again, the authors of the U.S. constitution knew better.

That certainly doesn’t sound very cheery. Why should we read this book?

CA & LB: Politics is often not very cheery. But facing our problems honestly is the first step toward doing something about them.

As one important example, the way we pick presidents now is worrisome. It’s been worrisome, even scary, for several decades now, and yet we have drifted along pretending that all is well. It’s like skipping inoculations and then finding yourself, too late, in an epidemic. The usual ways of thinking about democracy have brought us to this point, and most of the reform proposals we have seen miss the fundamental issues and will make little or no difference. In our view, we need to rethink in a much deeper way. That is what this book is about.

Christopher H. Achen is the Roger Williams Straus Professor of Social Sciences and professor of politics at Princeton University. His books include The European Union Decides. Larry M. Bartels holds the May Werthan Shayne Chair of Public Policy and Social Science at Vanderbilt University. His books include Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (Princeton). Their most recent book together is Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government.

Happy Birthday, Albert Einstein!

What a year. Einstein may have famously called his own birthday a natural disaster, but between the discovery of gravitational waves in February and the 100th anniversary of the general theory of relativity this past November, it’s been a big year for the renowned physicist and former Princeton resident. Throughout the day, PUP’s design blog will be celebrating with featured posts on our Einstein books and the stories behind them.

HappyBirthdayEinstein Graphic 3

Here are some of our favorite Einstein blog posts from the past year:

Was Einstein the First to Discover General Relativity? by Daniel Kennefick

Under the Spell of Relativity by Katherine Freese

Einstein: A Missionary of Science by Jürgen Renn

Me, Myself and Einstein by Jimena Canales

The Revelation of Relativity by Hanoch Gutfreund

A Mere Philosopher by Eoghan Barry

The Final Days of Albert Einstein by Debra Liese


Where would we be without Pi?

Pi Day, the annual celebration of the mathematical constant π (pi), is always an excuse for mathematical and culinary revelry in Princeton. Since 3, 1, and 4 are the first three significant digits of π, the day is typically celebrated on 3/14, which in a stroke of serendipity, also happens to be Albert Einstein’s birthday. Pi Day falls on Monday this year, but Princeton has been celebrating all weekend with many more festivities still to come, from a Nerd Herd smart phone pub crawl, to an Einstein inspired running event sponsored by the Princeton Running Company, to a cocktail making class inside Einstein’s first residence. We imagine the former Princeton resident would be duly impressed.

Einstein enjoying a birthday/ Pi Day cupcake

Einstein enjoying a birthday/ Pi Day cupcake

Pi Day in Princeton always includes plenty of activities for children, and tends to be heavy on, you guessed it, actual pie (throwing it, eating it, and everything in between). To author Paul Nahin, this is fitting. At age 10, his first “scientific” revelation was,  If pi wasn’t around, there would be no round pies! Which it turns out, is all too true. Nahin explains:

Everybody “knows’’ that pi is a number a bit larger than 3 (pretty close to 22/7, as Archimedes showed more than 2,000 years ago) and, more accurately, is 3.14159265… But how do we know the value of pi? It’s the ratio of the circumference of a circle to a diameter, yes, but how does that explain how we know pi to hundreds of millions, even trillions, of decimal digits? We can’t measure lengths with that precision. Well then, just how do we calculate the value of pi? The symbol π (for pi) occurs in countless formulas used by physicists and other scientists and engineers, and so this is an important question. The short answer is, through the use of an infinite series expansion.

NahinIn his book In Praise of Simple Physics, Nahin shows you how to derive such a series that converges very quickly; the sum of just the first 10 terms correctly gives the first five digits. The English astronomer Abraham Sharp (1651–1699) used the first 150 terms of the series (in 1699) to calculate the first 72 digits of pi. That’s more than enough for physicists (and for anybody making round pies)!

While celebrating Pi Day has become popular—some would even say fashionable in nerdy circles— PUP author Marc Chamberland points out that it’s good to remember Pi, the number. With a basic scientific calculator, Chamberland’s recent video “The Easiest Way to Calculate Pi” details a straightforward approach to getting accurate approximations for Pi without tables or a prodigious digital memory. Want even more Pi? Marc’s book Single Digits has more than enough Pi to gorge on.

Now that’s a sweet dessert.

If you’re looking for more information on the origin of Pi, this post gives an explanation extracted from Joseph Mazur’s fascinating history of mathematical notation, Enlightening Symbols.

You can find a complete list of Pi Day activities from the Princeton Tour Company here.

Presenting the new book trailer for Strange Glow: The Story of Radiation

Five years ago on March 12, following a devastating tsunami, Fukushima Prefecture in Japan experienced the largest release of radioactive materials since the infamous nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl 30 years before. The world, understandably, was braced for the worst. But molecular radiation biologist Tim Jorgensen, author of Strange Glow: The Story of Radiation says this accident was no Chernobyl. The levels measured at Fukushima after the meltdown aren’t much higher than the annual background levels that already existed—a fact that does little to allay fears for many. How much then, do we really know about radiation and its actual dangers? Though radiation is used in everything from x-rays to cell phones, much of the population still has what Jorgensen considers an uninformed aversion to any type of exposure. In this fascinating scientific history, he describes mankind’s extraordinary, often fraught relationship with radiation.

We are pleased to present the new book trailer for Strange Glow:

The Rise and Fall of American Growth is a New York Times Best-Seller!

GordonWe’re thrilled to announce that The Rise and Fall of American Growth by Robert J. Gordon will enter the New York Times Best-Seller list at #18 this month. Gordon’s book, which makes a critical contribution to debates surrounding economic stagnation, has been generating a wave of interest, with Adam Davidson’s New York Times Magazine piece on the book set to appear in print on Sunday. Davidson writes that the book “is this year’s equivalent to Thomas Piketty’s ‘Capital in the 21st Century’: an essential read for all economists, who are unanimously floored by its boldness and scope even if they don’t agree with its conclusions.” Robert Atkinson also mentioned the book in the Harvard Business Review, where he calls the stagnation of productivity “the central economic issue of our time.”

Gordon argues that economic growth cannot and will not continue unabated, demonstrating that the life-altering scale of innovations between 1870 and 1970 were unique, and can’t be repeated in our modern society. He contends that the nation’s already-slow productivity growth will be further held back by rising inequality, stagnating education, an aging population, and the rising debt of college students and the federal government:

Gordon infographic

Robert Gordon asks: Has the era of unprecedented growth come to an end?

This will be the fifth appearance of a PUP book on the New York Times bestseller list since 2000. The list includes our classic titles Irrational Exuberance, by Robert Shiller, On Bullshit, by Harry Frankfurt, This Time is Different, by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, Alan Turing: The Enigma, by Andrew Hodges, and, now, Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth. Congratulations to Robert Gordon and the Princeton University Press staff who have worked hard to bring this important book the attention it deserves.