Nick Higham on beautiful equations

The Most Beautiful Equations in Applied Mathematics

By Nick Higham


From p. 171 of PCAM,
typeset in all its splendour in the Lucida Bright font.

The BBC Earth website has just published a selection of short articles on beautiful mathematical equations and is asking readers to vote for their favourite.

I wondered if we had included these equations in The Princeton Companion to
Applied Mathematics
(PCAM), specifically in Part III: Equations, Laws, and Functions of Applied Mathematics. We had indeed included the ones most
relevant to applied mathematics. Here are those equations, with links to the
BBC articles.

  • The wave equation (which quotes PCAM author Ian Stewart). PCAM has a short
    article by Paul Martin of the same title (III.31), and the wave equation
    appears throughout the book.
  • Einstein’s field equation. PCAM has a 2-page article Einstein’s Field
    (note the plural), by Malcolm MacCallum (article III.10).
  • The Euler-Lagrange equation. PCAM article III.12 by Paul Glendinning is about
    these equations, and more appears in other articles, especially The
    Calculus of Variations
    (IV.6), by Irene Fonseca and Giovanni Leoni.
  • The Dirac equation. A 3-page PCAM article by Mark Dennis (III.9) describes
    this equation and its quantum mechanics roots.
  • The logistic map. PCAM article The logistic equation (III.19), by Paul
    Glendinning treats this equation, in both differential and difference forms.
    It occurs in several places in the book.
  • Bayes’ theorem. This theorem appears in the PCAM article Bayesian Inference in Applied Mathematics (V.11), by Des Higham, and in other articles employing
    Bayesian methods.

A natural equation is: Are there other worthy equations that are the
subject of articles in Part III of PCAM that have not been included in the BBC
list? Yes! Here are some examples (assuming that only single equations are
allowed, which rules out the Cauchy-Riemann equations, for example).

  • The Black-Scholes equation.
  • The diffusion (or heat) equation.
  • Laplace’s equation.
  • The Riccati equation.
  • Schrödinger’s equation.

Higham jacketThis article is cross posted to Nick Higham’s blog.

Check out the Princeton Companion to Applied Math here.

Anna Frebel on the search for the oldest stars

Frebel jacketAstronomers study the oldest observable stars in the universe in much the same way that archaeologists study ancient artifacts on Earth. Stellar archaeologist Anna Frebel is credited with discovering several of the oldest and most primitive stars, and her book, Searching for the Oldest Stars is a gripping firsthand account of her work. Recently she took the time to answer some questions:

What is your main research topic and what is stellar archaeology?

AF: My work is broadly centered on finding the oldest stars in the universe and using them to explore how the first stars and the first galaxies formed soon after the Big Bang. This works because these ancient stars are about 13 billion years old and they are still shining. The universe itself, by comparison, is 13.8 billion years old. I find these ancient stars in the outskirts of the Milky Way galaxy, using a large telescope. I’m also researching how the chemical elements heavier than hydrogen and helium were first created in those early stars, which ultimately allowed Earth to form and to bring about life in the universe.

What is your biggest discovery?

AF: I have been fortunate enough to discover several “record holding stars”. In 2007, I found a 13.2 billion year-old star, which is incredibly old. This followed the 2005 discovery of the chemically most primitive star – a star of the second generation of stars to have formed in the universe. Since then, I have analyzed some incredible ancient stars in dwarf galaxies that orbit the Milky Way galaxy, and together with my team, we have recently beaten said 2005 record, which was enormously exciting.

Why do people say we are made from stardust?

AF: We humans are made from all sorts of different chemical elements, mostly carbon. We breathe oxygen and nitrogen, we wear silver and gold jewelry. All these elements were once, atom by atom, created inside different kinds of stars and their supernova explosions over the course of billions of years. Studying this evolution of the chemical elements in the universe with the help of ancient stars means that I’m literally studying the cosmic origins of the building blocks of life. So we really are closely connected with the universe, far more than we realize.

How did you decide to become a scientist?

AF: From a young age I knew I wanted to study stars. They were just so fascinating to me, these big spheres of gas, fusing new elements to gain energy to shine for eons in the sky. Fortunately, I received good advice during high school on how to become an astronomer. After studying physics until 2002, I turned to astronomy and the rest is history. Today, I take pride in sharing my story with young people and the general public by telling them what astronomers do on a daily basis, and how scientific results are achieved. I am passionate about conveying the importance of science literacy to the young and the young at heart while inspiring them with the beauty and mystery of the cosmos.

What kind of telescope is used for your astronomical observations?

AF: Astronomers use all kinds of different telescopes on Earth as well as from space to peer deep into the cosmos. It depends on the type of project and the brightness of the objects which telescope is best suited. Space observations are being carried out remotely, whereas ground-based observations are still done by the astronomer who has to travel to the telescope. More and more telescopes are becoming automated to enable remote controlled “office observing”.

Anna Frebel in front of the 6.5m Magellan Telescope in Chile.

Anna Frebel in front of the 6.5m Magellan Telescope in Chile.

Are you traveling to any telescopes?

AF: Yes, I regularly fly to Chile to the Magellan Telescopes to carry out my observations. These are some of the largest telescopes in the world and the dark night sky in the Southern Hemisphere is terrific for studying the cosmos. It’s the favorite part of my job and I love discovering new facts about the universe through these observations!

What does it mean when you say you’re going observing?

AF: To use the telescopes, you have to fly to Chile. First to Santiago, then to La Serena and from there is a 2-3h drive up the mountains of the Atacama Desert where the telescopes are. There are guest rooms there for the observers to sleep during the day and the observatory chefs are cooking delicious meals for everyone. Dinner is eaten together by all observers, including the technical staff. It’s a little community with the sole purposes of caring for the telescopes and obtaining exquisite astronomical observations all night long of a breathtaking sky.

What does a typical night at the telescope look like?

AF: All preparations for the night happen during the afternoon while it’s still light outside. After sunset, I usually choose the first targets from my list, which I begin to observe soon after dark. Each star is observed for 10-30 minutes. We immediately inspect each observation and then decide on the fly whether we need more data or not. If we have found an interesting old star we may choose to immediately observe it for a few more hours.

Did anything ever go wrong at the telescopes?

AF: Of course! Mostly when it’s cloudy because then we can’t observe any starlight. This can be very frustrating because it can mean that we have to come back to the telescope a year later to try again. Clouds spell bad luck. Other times, the air layers above the telescope are often not as smooth as is required. This makes the stars twinkle and appear less sharp, which means less good data and longer exposure times. And sometimes there are technical problems with the telescope too.

How do you get your telescope time? Can I go to your telescope and observe, too?

AF: To obtain telescope time, astronomers have to submit a proposal to a committee that selects the best projects and awards them the time. The proposal contains a detailed description of the project and the technical details on what information is being sought. Telescope use is restricted to professional astronomers because of the considerable expense. The cost is about USD 50,000 to 100,000 per night, depending on the telescope, and often paid by various institutions and universities who jointly operate observatories. While this is a lot of money, it’s actually not that much in comparison to many other research facilities.

Are there any special moments at the telescope that you remember in particular?

AF: Yes, going observing is always magical and memorable. Of course I particularly remember big discoveries and the excited nervousness of checking and checking whether we didn’t make a mistake and that the discovery was really what it appeared to be. Then, there have been the frustrating moments of sitting at the telescopes for nights on end listening to the rain and flying home empty-handed. I have been there when severe technical problems and even a bush fire prevented observing during clear nights. But I always associate observing with the most colorful sunsets, the calm and peaceful atmosphere up in the mountains, and of course the sleepless but exciting nights.

Anna Frebel is the Silverman (1968) Family Career Development Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is author of Searching for the Oldest Stars, and has received numerous international honors and awards for her discoveries and analyses of the oldest stars. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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Lynn Gamwell on math and the visual arts’ shared cultural history

GamwellMathematicians and artists have historically shared a common interest: inquiry and comprehension of the intricacies of the world around them, whether through numerical or aesthetic design. Illustrating the relationship between math and art from antiquity to present day, Lynn Gamwells Mathematics and Art highlights the significant impact these two linked worlds have on one another. Gamwell recently took the time to answer some questions about her book. Examining the modern disciplines of art and math, she reveals the profound philosophy of self-reflection that these two cultural and intellectual pursuits share. Don’t forget to check out the stunning slideshow following the Q&A.

What’s the basic idea of your book?

LG: I started with the assumption that how people understand reality relates directly to the concepts of mathematics that develop in their culture. Mathematics is a search for patterns, and artists, in turn, create visualizations of the patterns discovered in their time. So I describe a general history of mathematics and the related artwork.

Since you begin in Stone Age times, your book covers over 5000 years. Is there a historical focus to the book?

LG: Yes, there are 13 chapters, and the first gives the background up to around 1800 AD. The other 12 chapters are on the modern and contemporary eras, although I occasionally dip back into pre-modern times to give the background of a topic. A central question that drove my exploration of the modern era was: where did abstract, non-objective art come from? Between around 1890 and 1915, many artists stopped depicting people and landscapes and start using pure color and form as the vocabulary of their art. Why? I argue that modern art is an expression of the scientific worldview. Beginning in the late nineteenth century and continuing today, researchers describe bacteria, cells, radiation, and pulsars that are invisible to the unaided eye, as well as mathematical patterns in nature.

Can you give a few examples of the relation of math and art?

LG: Italian Renaissance artists, such as Leonardo da Vinci, constructed the space in paintings such as The Last Supper using linear perspective, which is a geometric projection invented in the 1430s by the architect Filippo Brunelleschi. In the twentieth century, Swiss Constructivists such as Karl Gerstner created symmetrical patterns based on the mathematics of group theory, which measures the amount of symmetry in a system, such as atoms and sub-atomic particles. The contemporary America artist Jim Sanborn uses topology, which is the projection of geometric shapes onto surfaces that are stretched and distorted. For example in photographs of cliffs in Ireland, Jim first projected concentric circles onto the rocks and then took the photograph with a long exposure at moonrise. These artists are, of course, interested in many other things besides mathematics; aesthetic issues are their primary focus.

The examples you give are artists who are inspired by math; are mathematicians ever influenced by art?

LG: Mathematics are rarely inspired by a particular piece of art (since most artists use elementary arithmetic and geometry), but rather they aspire to include in their proofs general aesthetic qualities, such as purity, simplicity, and elegance.

You mention Leonardo da Vinci; didn’t he use the Golden Ration?

LG: No. It is a common misconception that a ratio described by Euclid as “mean and extreme ratio” has been used by artists throughout history because it holds the key to beautiful proportions. This myth was begun in the early nineteenth century by a German scholar who called Euclid’s ratio “golden.” The myth took a tenacious hold on Western intellectuals because, as science was beginning to take them off their privileged pedestal, it assured them that all beauty is based on a ratio embodied in human anatomy. There is no science supporting this claim.

Your book is a global history; did you find that there is a difference between math in the East and West?

LG: Yes, because a culture’s understanding of mathematics is based in its understanding of reality. In antiquity, Eastern mathematics in based in Taoism, the view that nature is composed of myriad parts that came together by self-assembly into a harmonious whole. Thus Chinese mathematicians discerned patterns in numbers, such as the Luoshu (magic square), in which numbers in the rows, columns, and diagonals have the same sum (the harmonious whole). On the other hand, Western cultures believed that a divine person (The Egyptian sun-god Ra, the God of Abraham, Plato’s carpenter) had imposed order on formless chaos. Thus Westerners went looking for this order, and they found it in the movement of the stars (the Babylonian zodiac), and the planets (Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion). Although there was a difference between Eastern and Western math when there was little contact, in today’s culture there is one global math.

The book includes the diverse fields of art, philosophy, mathematics, and physics; what is your educational background?

LG: I have a BA in philosophy and a PhD in art history. I’m self-taught in the history of science and math.

At 576 pages, this is a long book with extensive endnotes and 500+ illustrations; how long did it take you?

LG: 12 years of research and writing, plus one year in production.

Did you make any discoveries about art that especially surprised you?

LG: Yes. When I started my research I thought that artists during the modern era (the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries) would have only a vague knowledge of the math of their times, because of the famed “two cultures” divide. But I found specific historical evidence (an artist’s essay, manifesto, interview, or letter), which demonstrated that the artist had direct knowledge of a particular piece of mathematics and had embodied it in his or her art. Examples include: Aleksandr Rodchenko, Henry Moore, Piet Mondrian, Max Bill, Dorothea Rockburne, as well as musicians, such as Arnold Schoenberg, and poets, such as T. S. Eliot and James Joyce. Again, I would stress that for such artists mathematics is a secondary interest at best, and they are concerned with materials, expressive content, and purely aesthetic issues.

Any surprising discoveries about math and science?

LG: Yes, here are two. Much of what is taught as physics is really philosophy (interpretation) of physical data. An example is the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics, which was taught as THE gospel truth from its announcement in 1927 to around 1960. In fact, there are other ways to interpret the same laboratory data, which were largely ignored. I’m used to such dogmatism in the art world, where artists and critics are known to proclaim what art IS, but I expected to find a more cool-headed rationalism in the laboratory. Alas, we’re all human beings, driven by our passions. Another example is the strong resistance to Platonism (the view that abstract objects exist outside time and space) in modern culture, even though Platonism is the view held by most working mathematicians (i.e., they believe they are discovering patterns not creating them). While doing research, I found myself viewed with suspicion of being a religious missionary (disguised as a scholar) because I gave a sympathetic reading of historical religious documents (in other words, I tried to describe reality from their point of view). In fact, my outlook is completely secular. I came to realize that many secularists are unable to separate Platonism from its long association with religious doctrine, which touches a nerve in certain otherwise dispassionate academics.

Are you planning another project? What are you going to do next?

LG: I’m going to take some time off and regroup. I’ve started to think about writing something for children.

Check out the slideshow highlighting just a few of the book’s stunning images:

Eric J. Heller (American, b. 1946), Transport 2, ca. 2000. Digital print.
KIlkee County Claire, Ireland

Eric J. Heller (American, b. 1946), Transport 2, ca. 2000. Digital print. Courtesy of the artist.

Center of the Cat’s Eye Nebula (NGC 6543), 2004. NASA, ESA, HEIC, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Zodiac. Digital print, 2015. Umbra Studio, New York.

Luoshu diagram, from Zhu Xi, Zhouyi (twelfth century AD), reproduced in Yitu mingbian (Clarification of the diagrams in the book of changes), by Hu Wei (1706 AD), chap. 1. Needham Research Institute, Cambridge, England.

Tatsuo Miyajima, Keep Changing, Connect with Everything, Continue Forever, 1998. LED, IC, electric wire, plastic, aluminum panel, iron, 113 1/4 × 151 3/16 × 5 1/8 in. (288 × 384 × 13 cm). Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, courtesy of the artist and SCAI The Bathhouse, Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Norihiro Ueno.

Sylvie Donmoyer (French, b. 1959), Still Life with Magic Square, 2011. Oil on canvas, 26 × 20 in. (66 × 50.8 cm). Courtesy of the artist.

Andrei Bely’s chart of the stress pattern in lines of verse, in Символизм (Symbolism; Moscow: Musaget, 1910), 260. Public domain.

Andrea Mantegna (Italian, 1431–1506), The Adoration of the Magi, 1495–1500. Distemper on linen, 19 1/8 × 25 13/16 in. (54.6 × 70.7 cm). J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, inv. 85.PA.417. Photo: Courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program

Jim Sanborn (American, b. 1945), Kilkee County Clare, Ireland, 1997. Large-format projection, digital print, 30 × 36 in. (76.2 × 91.4 cm). Courtesy of the artist.

Force Fields diagrams, in James Clerk Maxwell, A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1873). Public domain.

Karl Gerstner (Swiss, b. 1930), Color Sound 66: Introversion, 1998. Nitrocellulose lacquers on phenolic resin panels, 46 3/4 × 46 3/4 in. (119 × 119 cm). Courtesy of the artist.

Simon Thomas (British, b. 1960), Planeliner, 2005. Bead blasted stainless steel, 23 5/8 in. (60 cm) diam. × 2 1/4 in. (5.55 cm) high. Courtesy of the artist.

Robert Bosch (American, b. 1963), Knot? 2006. Digital print, 34 × 34 in. (86.3 × 86.3 cm). Courtesy of the artist.

Erik Demaine (Canadian-born American, b. 1981) and Martin Demaine (American, b. 1942), Untitled (0264), from the Earthtone Series, 2012. Mi-Teintes paper, 19 in. (48.2 cm) high. Courtesy of the artists.

Lynn Gamwell is lecturer in the history of art, science, and mathematics at the School of Visual Arts in New York. She is the author of Exploring the Invisible: Art, Science, and the Spiritual (Princeton).

Six Muslim Students in Jane Austen’s England

A true antidote for the tenor of recent discourse, this is the most welcome of stories about the Middle East and the West: one of friendships. Nile Green, Professor of History at UCLA, chronicles the frustration and fellowship of six young men abroad and the transformative encounter between an Evangelical England and an Islamic Iran at the dawn of the modern age.

Selections from the Persian Diary of Mirza Salih Shirazi

Translated by Nile Green

Muslim Views on the Enlightenment: On Famous Thinkers & Social Niceties

Green jacketAs part of their quest for learning, Mirza Salih and his companions became fascinated by the lives of famous Western thinkers, both male and female. As Muslim conduits of the European Enlightenment, they were especially interested in social reformers and philosophers. In his diary, Mirza Salih included a long summary of the historical writings of David Hume, the paragon of the Scottish Enlightenment. But the Muslims students also understood that ideas have social contexts. Like pioneer anthropologists, they tried to understand British manners and habits with sympathy. Sometimes that meant demanding forms of Austenesque etiquette; sometimes it meant finding new ways to charm Miss Austen’s Regency misses.

On the pioneering woman writer Hannah More: “Because Miss More has written a number of books of her own, and published them as well, everyone – whether foreigners or locals, of high or low standing – comes to call on her. She has a large library of her own and lives in a house twelve miles outside Bristol, set between two mountains and positioned alongside the foot of one of them.”

On Newton’s statue in Cambridge: “Sir Isaac Newton was a philosopher who was both the eyes and the lantern of England.”

On Americans: “Benjamin Franklin was one of the philosophers and learned ones.” Mirza Salih goes on to describe with sympathy Franklin’s unsuccessful mission of conciliation to the English parliament and to respectfully describe “General George Washington” and his war for independence.

The Original Bluestocking: Hannah More

The Original Bluestocking: Hannah More

On breakfasting with the British: “Before arriving at the breakfast table, it is important to don elegant dress, to wash one’s hands and face, and for men to shave. At table, no-one is allowed to exchange their utensils with those of another person. And one must also display good manners and make polite table-talk throughout the meal.”

On cultural assimilation: “If they strive to make me wear English clothes because they think that way I will learn something and that it is the appropriate thing to do, then that is easy enough for me. And anyway, being in conflict with this or that, whether to prefer a fur hat to a foreign beret, is also quite enjoyable.”

On social calls: “Gentlemen like to call on ladies at around four in the afternoon. The ladies then serve them cheese and wine. They call this ‘tiffin.’”

Muslim Tourists in Miss Austen’s England: On the Virtues of British Cities

Birmingham Persian: ‘Justice’ Coin Minted by Matthew Boulton (1219/1804)

Birmingham Persian: ‘Justice’ Coin Minted by Matthew Boulton (1219/1804)

Although they were based in London, the six Muslim students made tours to other parts of England, all of them described in Mirza Salih’s Persian diary. Wherever they went, they were greeted like celebrities, with the tabloids of the day describing their fashionable taste in clothes and books. In Bath, they flaunted their fine fur pelisses; in Cambridge, they showed off their knowledge of Milton. At times, they wandered right into Jane Austen’s milieu, even walking past her former home in Bath. At other times, their tours of factories and textile mills remind us of the industrializing England that was hidden behind the hedgerows of Pride & Prejudice’s Pemberley.

On London’s parks: “One is Hyde Park; another is St James’ Park; another is Green Park; and another is Regent’s Park. In each of them, the people of London come there at one o’clock in the afternoon to spend time strolling around and conversing. Men and women, who might be family of friends, lock hands as they stroll. Those who have their own carriages go there in their carriages; other people ride horses. They stay there, ambling around, till it gets dark. But it is the custom there that no-one at all speaks loudly. If a blind person went there, he would imagine that none of the English can speak or that speaking has been banned there!”

On visiting Bath: “They have built six hammams around the hot waters and in those baths the hot water flows directly out of the ground. Men and women go together to the same hammam. But so that it is not unseemly, the women wear dresses that cover their entire bodies.”

On the lackluster view along the Thames: “There are some good houses, buildings and other places along the way.”

On the booming British arm’s industry: “Birmingham is a city that is famous for manufacturing weapons of war, including muskets (tufang), swords (shamshir), pistols (tubancha), daggers (chaqu) and other weapons. There are many factories there with large crowds of people are busy at work.

A Muslim Assessment of Oxford: A Baffling Visit to the Varsity

After working so hard on their English grammar and Latin prose, Mirza Salih and Mirza Ja‘far dreamt of becoming the first Muslims to study at Oxford. At a time when Catholics and even Baptists were banned from studying there, it was a high ambition. And as they learned more about the social hierarchies that surrounded English learning, they realized they needed more than an acquaintance with subjunctives and Cicero to win them entry to the varsity. They would also need patrons. For over a year, they networked hard. Then, at the beginning of Michaelmas term 1818, Salih and Ja‘far boarded the Oxford stagecoach from London. They had been invited to attend Encaenia, the dazzling degree ceremony that attracts thousands of tourists to this day. But the young Muslims were no fans of ritual and pageantry. They had seekers of science.

We ate lunch and then went out to the palace in which the Vice Chancellor, who is the master of Oxford, examines people for the degree of doctor… When the Vice Chancellor came in all the people rose from their seats. Several persons walked in before him bearing long maces of gold and silver, and after them came the Vice Chancellor himself, dressed all in scarlet and wearing a garment like a bashliq thrown over one shoulder. He entered with extreme pomp and then sat down at the head of the assembly. On two chairs to either side of him were sat two other people known as ‘proctors.’ Two other men, previously among the lords of learning, had examined the scholars of the colleges, written something and passed it to their hands; this was composed in the Latin tongue. So the Vice Chancellor stood up from his place and read out this announcement as the whole assembly listened. Then the two proctors rose from their seats… There were three such to-ings and fro-ings in this way before the gaze of the whole assembly. In our eyes especially it seemed nothing but tomfoolery and excess.

 At the degree ceremony, two people were given scarlet gowns and awarded the title of Doctor. Several people from among the examiners testified in Latin that they were proficient in such and such a subject, the Vice Chancellor awarded the two candidates their degrees and then the assembly disbanded. Both of their names, degrees and branches of learning were recorded in ledgers. Although the Vice Chancellor is no greater a doctor than anyone else, as the master of Oxford he is one of the notables and great ones of England, such that the aforementioned doctors become his deputies. For this reason, he was arrogant towards us in a way that none of the other khans of Oxford were. Indeed, from when we entered the hall until the time we left, he did not so much as utter a word to us, nor even offer a glance in our direction. And so neither did we utter a word to anyone as we exited and walked towards the festivities in the ‘botanic’ garden….

“We Are All Made of Stars: The Radcliffe Observatory as the Students Saw It”

We Are All Made of Stars: The Radcliffe Observatory as the Students Saw It

 Nearby is a mansion that is called the ‘Observatory’, which is a place where astronomy is taught. Huge telescopes and astrolabes are kept there, and the people who are studying astronomy go there and with these telescopes trace the orbits and trajectories of the planets. The setting of the mansion is a place like paradise; the building itself large and splendid.

Nile Green is professor of history at UCLA. His many books include The Love of Strangers and Sufism: A Global History. He lives in Los Angeles.

Conversations on Climate: Paul Wignall says climate crisis is nothing new

NEW climate pic

Climate Change: We’ve Been Here Before
by Paul Wignall

The world’s climate is always changing and always has. Even during the past few centuries we have seen substantial variations, but only recently have we begun to blame ourselves for them. But how much natural variability is there, and just how extreme can climate change be? To gain some longer-term perspective on the climate’s variability we can look back through geological time, particularly at catastrophic events known as mass extinctions. In my recent book, The Worst of Times, I focus on an 80 million year interval when life on Earth suffered one disaster after another. These catastrophes included the Permo-Triassic mass extinction, the worst crisis that life has ever faced. It is not very reassuring to find that these extinctions all coincide with intervals of rapid global warming.

rocks from Permian-Triassic boundary in Guizhou

Sedimentary rocks from the Permian-Triassic boundary in Guizhou Province, SW China that record evidence for the greatest of all mass extinctions.

So, are we all going to hell in a hand basket? Well, probably not just yet. The story from the past is much more nuanced than this and I believe there is substantial hope that all is not so bad today. The reason is that the worst 80 million years happened a long time ago and more recently (in the past 100 million years) things have got a lot better. At one time all the world’s continents were joined together into a single supercontinent called Pangea. This seems to have created a global environment that was very fragile. Every time there was a phase of giant volcanic eruptions in Pangea, climates changed rapidly, the oceans stagnated and life began to suffer. The cause seems to be not the actual lava flows themselves, although these were very large, but the gases that bubbled out of them, especially carbon dioxide, everyone’s (not so) favorite greenhouse gas. As I explain in my book the effects of these gases on climate and oceans changed global environments in a disastrous way. Rapid increases in global temperature were part of the story and the results were some of the hottest climates of all time. The results for life were profound; dominant groups went extinct and new groups appeared only to have their brief hegemony terminated by the next disaster. By the time these waves of extinction were over the dinosaurs were the newest kids on the block. They went on to thrive and get very large whilst scurrying around at their feet were a group of small furry creatures. These were the mammals and they would have to wait a long time for their turn.

basalt flows

A landscape entirely made of giant basalt flows from the Permian Period, Yunnan Province, SW China.

Dinosaurs were the dominant animals on Earth for over 140 million years and it is often thought that they were somehow competitively successful but I think they were just very lucky. They appeared at a time when the Earth was rapidly getting better at coping with climatic changes caused by giant volcanism. There were plenty of episodes of large-scale eruptions during the time of the dinosaurs and none caused major extinctions. The key thing was that Pangea was splitting up and separate continents were forming – the familiar continents of today’s world. Such a world seems better able to cope with rapid increases in atmospheric gases because feedback mechanisms are more effective. In particular rainfall is more plentiful when the continents are small and nowhere is too far away from the sea. Rain scrubs the atmosphere and thus alleviates the problems.

However, the $64,000 question is how quickly this feedback can happen. The world seems better at doing this today than it was in deep time but maybe we are adding the carbon dioxide too fast to our atmosphere, maybe we are swamping the system? This is a hard question to answer, we’re not sure how much gas came out during the giant eruptions of the past and so it’s hard to directly compare with the present day pollution rates. What we do know is that past mega-eruptions have been remarkably damage-free. For over 100 million years, our world has been a benign place.

Oh, except for a remarkably large meteorite impact that was bad news for the dinosaurs, but that’s another story.

Wignall jacketPaul B. Wignall is professor of palaeoenvironments at the University of Leeds. He has been investigating mass extinctions for more than twenty-five years, a scientific quest that has taken him to dozens of countries around the world. The coauthor of Mass Extinctions and Their Aftermath, he lives in Leeds.

The Process Matters: Joel Brockner critiques Twitter’s most recent layoff method

Process Matters coverAccording to Joel Brockner, author of The Process Matters: Engaging and Equipping People for Success, an overemphasis on “results only” in the workplace is as widespread as it is detrimental. As Brockner aims to demonstrate in his opinion piece in Fortune magazine, the process managers use to reach their goals is itself critical. He critiques Twitter’s recent decision to block employee email accounts as a way of notifying staff of layoffs, while professing the highest respect and consideration for its employees. Brockner explains:

While the generous exit package may have been well-intended, the message of utmost respect fell by the wayside because the approach Twitter took was a process disaster… Given Twitter’s professed intentions, it seems that they could have found a more dignified way to tell people that they were being let go. But Twitter isn’t alone in process dysfunction.

Brockner continues to discuss the potential reasons for such a managerial mishap: perhaps the misstep isn’t obvious, or the managers are simply unaware of its unintended consequences. Yet he maintains that executives should prioritize improving managerial-employee processes, because ultimately the company will, “pay now or pay (a lot more) later.”

Read the full opinion piece in Fortune here.

Joel Brockner is the Phillip Hettleman Professor of Business at the Columbia Business School. He is the author of A Contemporary Look at Organizational Justice: Multiplying Insult Times Injury and Self-Esteem at Work, and the coauthor of Entrapment in Escalating Conflicts.

Armistead and Sullivan on the unique joy of (better) birding

Better Birding jacketThe more one knows about birding, the more enjoyable it becomes, say Better Birding authors George L. Armistead of the American Birding Association and Brian L. Sullivan of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  Armistead and Sullivan simplify identification strategies, and provide techniques and tips to make the birding experience as comprehensive—and enamoring—as possible.

For many, birding can grow into an emotional and even spiritual endeavor. Birding is also like a puzzle, according to Armistead and Sullivan, because it takes consideration and knowledge of several working elements that ultimately link to one another. In this interview, Armistead and Sullivan explore the joy, fulfillment, and practices involved in better birding.

How is that someone ends up becoming a birder? How is it that you both ended up as bird-watchers, or “birders”, if you prefer?

GA: I come by it honestly. My father is a lifelong birder, and though he never met either of his grandfathers, both of them had a keen interest in nature and birds. Seems hard-wired in our family. I think most birders have a natural inclination to being outside, and are curious people with a thirst to know more. Often it seems through a hunger to discover more about the world around you, you stumble across someone else that mentors you, catapulting you forward in your quest to learn, and it’s a positive feedback loop. It’s kind of addictive. The more you know, the more you want to know. It’s fun, thrilling, yet relaxing too.

BS: I had a passion for birds as a child, and my parents really nurtured that by taking me to places such as Hawk Mountain and Cape May, where I fell in love with hawk migration. Being outside at these places really opened my eyes to the world around me. Once I realized what was possible, I was hooked. The idea of all these birds moving across the landscape twice a year fascinated me, and all I wanted to do was get outside and see what had arrived each day. For a kid, it was like living in a perpetual Christmas morning. I still feel that way every time I go birding.

What exactly is Better Birding? How is this book meant to help readers get more out of their time spent looking at birds? And why is that important?

GA & BS: More than anything, birding is supposed to be fun. Why it’s important to anyone in particular is personal, as there are so many different ways to enjoy observing birds. We’d refer readers to the section in the introduction titled “Why Birding is Cool” to try and understand what birders get out of the experience. We’ve taken a good hard look at the practices and the techniques involved in active birding in this book, and we’ve tried to distill those processes into digestible bits wrapped around the fun aspects of learning how to identify certain groups of birds. While that may sound “serious”, what we really hope to do is provide folks a deeper understanding of what they are seeing when they are in the field, and hopefully provide avenues for exploration. Most of us start out trying to snag sightings of life birds (birds we’ve never seen before), and as we discuss listing as a deeply ingrained part of birding. But after a while most of us find a desire cropping up to understand not just what birds looks like, but also how they evolved, how they are related, and why they do what they do. And the cool thing is that as you learn these things, suddenly bird identification becomes a lot easier.

In Better Birding you discuss a “wide angle approach” to birding. Explain to us what you mean by that?

GA & BS: Routinely, new birders are presented with a single bird that intrigues or puzzles them. What usually happens next is that they focus in on what the bird looks like. Naturally, they zoom in as far as possible to try and see as much of the bird as they can, in excruciating detail, and so often we are drawn to color and plumage. And this approach makes sense—it underpins the oldest approaches to bird identification going back to the original Peterson Guide. But often if we zoom out just a little bit we see a lot more. We see the bird’s surroundings, and the habitat it has chosen. We see how it moves and feeds. We see that its lurking in the shadows, or prominently perched in the sun, or always in the air, and this is useful information. If we can see and understand what a bird is doing, that can often be more instructive than how it appears. Zooming out further, we look at the date and the season, which are also really helpful things to consider when trying to determine the likelihood of a particular species’ occurrence in a place. A bird’s appearance is the starting point, but many times it’s other factors that solidify an identification. Mostly due to space constraints, typical field guides don’t provide this context.

Do either of you have a favorite bird?

GA: Yes, this is the question that all birders are asked. Some folks have a ready answer, but I’ve never been able to settle upon one. It’s like picking a favorite song, or a favorite beer; there are so many great ones to choose from! Like Brian, I’m very fond of seabirds. They are so dynamic in the air, with sharp, streamlined shapes. I remember being stranded at a dock in Mexico once for several hours and I was never bored watching the Magnificent Frigatebirds kiting around. Birds like Black-capped Petrel, Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel, Northern Fulmar and Light-mantled Sooty Albatross are extremely gratifying to watch. Seabirds aside, one of the most beautiful moments I have ever witnessed was watching a male Spruce Grouse courting a female outside of Churchill, Manitoba. It was simply incredible, deeply moving, and affected me in an almost spiritual way. And this from the bird often known as the “fool hen”; arguably the dumbest bird in North America.

BS: For me it’s always been raptors, with seabirds a close second. My fascination with both groups stems from a love of bird migration. Watching raptors move south down a windswept ridge in fall for me is a ‘religious experience’—it’s what I do to get recharged, to become filled with a sense of wonder and appreciation for the natural world that can somehow get lost with too many days spent behind a computer. It’s a primal connection that I can’t quite describe. In terms of particular species, I’ve come to appreciate most the Red-tailed Hawk. Although widespread and common, it has a bewildering array of plumages, a fascinating range of geographic variation, and an unbending wildness about it. I like that anyone can go out and see one on any given day just about anywhere around North America, and if they so choose, they can ask themselves more questions about it. What age is it? What subspecies is it? What color morph is it? Asking oneself questions like this is a perfect example of the process of thinking about birds at a higher level—and Red-tailed Hawk is a perfect subject for it.

What qualities make for a good birder?

BS: I think in a nutshell, the single best thing that a good birder learns is the process of extracting what they are actually seeing from what they’d like to see. The power of suggestion is high in birding, and emotions can run deep around the idea of seeing new birds. The best birders not only rapidly assess what they are seeing and put it into a broader context (the tools you’ll learn in this book), but they also take an extra moment to step back, extract themselves from the emotional side of the moment, and then objectively evaluate what they are actually seeing (the process we hope you learn from this book!). Taking this extra step often reveals that what was originally suspected of being a rare bird, is actually just a common bird in an unusual pose, behavior, or plumage.

GA: Patience, dedication and the ability to embrace uncertainty. One of the fun things about birding is that it is a puzzle. Identification is gratifying in that we get to look at something confusing or uncertain, makes sense of it, and give it a name. The more you are able to do this, the more fun it becomes. People do get overzealous about it at times, and knowing how and when to say, “I’m not sure”, is important. Good birders know when to let stuff go. They understand the limits imposed on them by their surroundings (such as light, visibility, wind, etc.) and also understand the limits of their field skills. Really, it’s all about awareness which is why good birders tend to be pretty interesting people. They are alert and attuned to what’s going.

George L. Armistead is events coordinator at the American Birding Association and a research associate in the Ornithology Department at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. He has led birding tours on all seven continents. Brian L. Sullivan is eBird program codirector and photographic editor for Birds of North America Online at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. He is the author of numerous papers on bird identification and the coauthor of The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors and Offshore Sea Life ID Guide: West Coast (both Princeton).

#ThanksEinstein: J.P. Ostriker on Einstein and the wonder of pure thought

Einstein meme

Questions with No Reply

J. P. Ostriker

J.P. Ostriker is an astrophysicist and the co-author of Heart of Darkness, which tells the saga of humankind’s quest to unravel the deepest secrets of the universe: dark matter and dark energy. Here is his story about how an Einstein thought experiment he encountered as a teenager changed his life.

When I was a high school student I drove my teachers crazy with incessant and insatiable curiosity about the natural world. Next to our pictures in the yearbook, one of the teachers had added a line for each student and for me it was “I thought of questions that have no reply.”

And for the questions that I had that my teachers could not or would not answer, I went to books. Einstein wrote several of these that were accessible to high school students, and they fascinated me. I remember a “thought experiment” presented in one of them: A scientist sets up an exquisite laboratory on a train and tests both Newton’s laws of mechanics and Maxwell’s laws of electricity and magnetism. And, hypothetically, one finds that both are correct to arbitrary precision.

train image, copyright: phildaintThen the train begins to move and E shows that, since the laws transform differently with the velocity of the observer, they can no longer both be true! Therefore one (or both) theories must be false.

This amazed me. No experiment was necessary. Pure thought was all that was needed and any high school student who thought about it could have come to the same conclusion as Einstein, and could have invented special relativity to solve the problem! I thought that this was wonderful, truly wonderful. I resolved that I would pursue physics and think about simple and fundamental matters. It looked easy.

Well, needless to say it was not always easy, but it has always been fun. I’m thankful I had access to Einstein’s popular books when I was a teenager with more questions than answers.

Jeremiah P. Ostriker is professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University. He is author, with Simon Mitton, of Heart of Darkness: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Invisible Universe. His books include Formation of Structure in the Universe and Unsolved Problems in Astrophysics (Princeton).


Train tracks image from Shutterstock, copyright: phildaint

Of Law and Love: Jon D. Levenson on THE LOVE OF GOD

The Love of God jacket

The love of God is perhaps the most essential element in Judaism—but also one of the most confounding. In biblical and rabbinic literature, the obligation to love God appears as a formal commandment. Yet most people today think of love as a feeling. How can an emotion be commanded? Jon D. Levenson, Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University, recently took the time to answer questions about his new book, The Love of God: Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness in Judaism.

How did you first get the idea of writing a book on the love of God in Judaism?

JL:  To love God is actually taken as a formal commandment in the rabbinic sources, and the passages in Deuteronomy that mandate it appear in texts that Talmudic law requires to be recited every day of the year. So, for anyone who aspires to be a practicing Jew, the subject comes up rather obviously and regularly—even if many people in that category don’t give it much thought. But one of my professors in my doctoral program many moons ago was the distinguished Assyriologist and Biblicist William L. Moran, whose classic article on “The Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Love of God in Deuteronomy,” published in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly in 1963, had a huge effect on me when I read it my first year in graduate school.

In brief, Professor Moran shows that the idiom of the love of God (that is, the people Israel’s love for God) originates in ancient treaties, or covenants, and has to do with the lesser party’s exclusive and undivided service of the greater party. In an earlier book, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible, I dealt with this same transposition (as I put it) from the realm of politics and international relations to the realm of theology and national identity. In the first chapter of The Love of God, I try to draw out a number of further implications of Professor Moran’s argument but also to make some refinements on it and to enter respectful dissents from it.

What kind of refinements and dissents do you have in mind?

JL: For one thing, although I totally agree that “love” has a technical, legal meaning in Deuteronomy and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament), I also agree with those who insist that the technical usage doesn’t preclude the emotional or affective connotations that the word has for most people. To put it differently, sometimes loving may simply mean loyal service and faithful obedience, but we need to guard against over-generalizing from such passages, just as we need to guard against interpreting “love” in this context as a purely subjective, emotional state without normative behavioral correlates. I try to show that in Deuteronomy God falls in love with Israel—I don’t think the language is exclusively technical but rather it connotes passion—and demands a response that has its own affective character. In other words, we have to reckon with both an outward and an inward dimension, though recognizing that the inward-outward dichotomy is not itself native to ancient Near Eastern culture and can lead interpreters of the Bible astray. In fact, the movement is in both directions. Actions awaken and deepen emotions, and emotions generate and make sense of actions.

I also stress more than Moran did the connection of the two meanings of “the love of God”—the love God receives and the love he gives. Both are found in Deuteronomy, though the rhetorical situation of that book leads it to emphasize the love the people Israel must give to God. An important part of the covenantal idea is that the greater party (in this case, God) has endowed the lesser party with gifts—like all true gifts, they are undeserved—and this should motivate the recipient to respond not only with gratitude and humility but also with acts of service. There is something in a gift that provokes reciprocity, and that reciprocity deepens the relationship of the two parties. This is what I mean by the words in the subtitle, “Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness.” Simply to treat the norms of the Torah—the mitzvot as they are called in Hebrew—as impersonal injunctions divorced from that living relationship with that very personal God is to misunderstand them profoundly. In my experience, doing so makes the Torah itself seem incoherent and antique. It is a huge blunder to try to force the biblical commandments altogether into the Procrustean bed of ethics, morals, folkways, or whatever. In this book, I try to lay out the alternatives that the classical biblical and rabbinic sources offer to these very modern, and in my opinion not very successful, strategies.

I noticed that in your second chapter, “Heart, Soul, and Might,” you deal at length with suffering and martyrdom. Why?

JL: That chapter focuses on the ancient rabbinic interpretations of the famous commandment to “love the LORD [which is actually a proper name] your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” The rabbis stress the unconditionality and supremacy of such love and consider ways in which a person might be tempted to prefer something else to that arduous commandment. So long as one puts self-interest above grateful and loving service, he or she has fallen short of the ideal. Part of the problem is that the biblical sources themselves (especially Deuteronomy again) promise all manner of good things to one who loves God, observing his commandments, and the opposite to one who fails to do so, breaking faith and breaching covenant. So, the rabbis are eager to stress that the hope for reward and the fear of punishment must not be the basis of the service. The Jew must persevere in his or her service; he or she must work at loving God even in the hardest and most frightful of situations. Here, the horrific martyrdom of Rabbi Akiva around 135 CE serves as a key object lesson.

One implication that I draw out from this is that the foundational narratives in which the God of Israel acts a generous benefactor establish the continuing norm. In other words, that situation overrides the immediate circumstances in which Jews find themselves—even circumstances of brutal persecution and death. The love that his gifts called forth was to remain firmly in place even when the gifts appear to have been withdrawn, replaced, in fact, by unspeakable hardship. This, in turn, leads me to reflect on the relationship of the unconditional to the conditional both in the love relationship of God and the Jewish people in these sources and in love relationships more generally.

It’s only in your third chapter that you develop the idea of a romance between God and the people Israel. Tell us why you didn’t do so earlier.

JL: The reason is simple: love in the ancient world—and really in the modern as well—isn’t exclusively or even primarily sexual in nature, even though sexual love commands disproportionate attention at the moment, especially in the fashions of academia. The Hebrew Bible has many metaphors for the God-Israel relationship: suzerain and vassal, king and subject, father and son, shepherd and flock, etc. In order to understand the marital metaphor—God as husband, Israel as wife—it is important to have dealt with some of these others, especially the suzerain-vassal metaphor, beforehand. Otherwise, we’re likely to read all kinds of contemporary assumptions about sexuality and gender into literature that operates on completely different understandings. In particular, if we don’t grasp the dynamics of covenant, we’ll find God’s actions in that marriage to be bizarre and patently indefensible.

For example, in our modern American world, if the wife gives her affections and her body to other men, a common solution lies in divorce: the two parties just go their separate ways, hoping to end up with partners more to their liking. But that is exactly what doesn’t happen in the marital metaphor as the biblical prophets develop it! Here again, the element of unconditionality is crucial. God doesn’t walk away from the relationship, even if Israel has done so. He doesn’t replace her or even take a second wife (remember, ancient Israel had no legal or moral problem with polygamy). He punishes her, even harshly, but this turns out to be a preparation for a restoration of the marriage. The punishment is a consequence of his passionate love for her and faithfulness to her. Ultimately, it evinces a renewal of her love for him, in turn. All this, of course, is foreign to us and doesn’t comport with how we think human husbands ought to act. But that doesn’t authorize us to miss the underlying theology, satisfying ourselves with a simple characterization of it as immoral or whatever.

Later, in the case of the rabbis, the speakers in the great biblical love poem, the Song of Songs, come to be seen as God and Israel, again in their ideal state of mutual fidelity. That’s not the plain sense of the book taken as a stand-alone composition, but within the context of the rest of biblical literature, it is a very natural—and very productive and very moving—way to read it. Nowhere does one see the power of the love of God more dramatically than in the rabbinic interpretations of the Song of Songs. That biblical book enabled the rabbis to interpret the whole history of the God-Israel relationship as a romance—an extremely important move in the history of Jewish thought.

In your last two chapters, you deal with medieval and modern materials. What changes in the Middle Ages and modernity?

JL: The medieval thinkers continue the rabbinic legacy but also add to it. For example, they sometimes interpret the female speaker of the Song of Songs as the individual soul. They also provide practical guidance about how to attain the love of God. For them again, that’s something to work on; it doesn’t just happen to you. It’s also in the Middle Ages that we first see the sustained interaction of the rabbinic legacy with philosophy. In one case, that of Maimonides, the philosopher waxes passionate about humans’ love for God but has problems with the idea that God loves humans, or anything else. That’s because he believes all human language to describe God is akin to idolatry; a God who’s susceptible to love seems imperfect to Maimonides. But I show that other medieval Jewish philosophers develop sophisticated arguments against him on this. To them, to love is a sign of perfection, not imperfection, and God’s love—even his passionate, unpredictable love—is a sign of his greatness.

In modern times, momentous changes appear with emancipation and secularization. Now one can leave the Jewish community without having to convert to Christianity or anything else. This makes observance of the mitzvot (commandments) just one lifestyle option among many; it’s no longer a social necessity or an obvious response to a divine will. Martin Buber, one of the two thinkers I examine in my last chapter, believes deeply in a personal God, but he also argues that whether the commandments in the Torah really reflect his will has to be determined by each individual on a case-by-case basis. So, ultimately and perhaps also unwittingly, Buber opts for the disconnected, autonomous self of modern liberalism. But his friend and collaborator Franz Rosenzweig comes to see God’s love as something that transforms and enlarges the self and impels it towards acceptance of the mitzvot—though without the support of old and now discredited historical claims.

Will the reader find surprises in The Love of God? Do you say things that contradict what people are likely to expect?

JL: Yes, I think so. For one, most people have an image of law as cold, confining, and impersonal, and, in the case of Judaism, two millennia of Christian polemicizing about “Pharisaism” and the like continue to take their toll, even among people who don’t identify as Christian. The notion that God’s gift of the Torah and the Jews’ careful observance of it are both acts of intense love will surprise those who instinctively see law and love as necessarily in opposition or tension.

In my previous Princeton University Press book, Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, I tried to shed new light on the vexing question of the chosenness, or election, of the Jews, and I’ve continued that, but with a somewhat different tack, in the new book. When chosenness is put into a framework of justice, the lack of objective merit of the chosen becomes a huge obstacle. But love isn’t based on objective assessments of merit. It has an unpredictable or irrational dimension, what today people call the “chemistry” the two parties experience. And love, because it’s relational, is necessarily particular. There’s room in Judaism for the idea that God loves all humanity, but his love for the people Israel cannot be identified with his love for everybody.

Actually, in speaking about this subject around the country, I’ve found that many people are unaware that the idea of a personal relationship with a loving God is part of Judaism at all. Partly, this is because of the legacy of the Christian caricature of the Old Testament as a book of harsh legalisms enforced by an angry, judgmental God (though there have long been many, many Christians who don’t subscribe to that notion). Partly, it’s because modern Judaism has tended to stress the mitzvot as manifested in ethics and social action over than the traditional theological claim that the mitzvot make a connection with the personal, loving God.

Finally, I think many readers will be surprised by the stress in medieval sources on solitary devotion and contemplation and on abstinence as key elements in Jewish spirituality. Almost all versions of modern Judaism have long been propounding a view of Judaism as communal, active, and world-affirming, but that is a gross over-simplification of the older tradition. As for abstinence or asceticism, one must always ask what the positive gain is that the renunciation or self-control at issue delivers. In the case of Baḥya ibn Paquda, one of the medieval thinkers examined in chapter 4, the asceticism serves the interest of increasing one’s love of God, which for Baḥya is the “consummation of the spiritual life,” as I entitle that chapter.

There may be other surprises, but to find out what they are, people will just have to read the book!

Jon D. Levenson is the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University. His many books include The Love of God, as well as Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel, which won the National Jewish Book Award, and Inheriting Abraham and Creation and the Persistence of Evil (both Princeton).













Publishing for a digital age: A word from Peter Dougherty #UPWeek


Scholarly Kitchen ran a terrific article yesterday on the important contributions of university presses, and how many are redefining their role in the digital age. At Princeton University Press, the past year has brought the successful launch of a major intellectual, digital, and global undertaking. A word from our director, Peter Dougherty:

EinsteinProbably the most stunning development at Princeton University Press is the successful launch of our Digital Edition of The Collected Papers of Albert EinsteinThe Digital Einstein Papers has given scientists and historians alike all over the world free access to the first thirteen volumes of the Einstein Papers, one of the most important intellectual archives in all of scholarly publishing.  According to Kenneth Reed, PUP’s Digital Production Manager, usage statistics suggest that the Digital Einstein Papers has been a truly successful global project:

“Since its launch, there have have been 2.7 million page views from across the world. Outside the United States, Germany and India represent the second and third most visitors to the site. Visitors view an average of over nine pages per visit, and returning visitors are 75%. Mobile users account for over 30% of the site usage, which is not surprising given the global appeal of the site.”

The Digital Einstein Papers also represents a global success by way of being a great international and cross-institutional collaboration, drawing on the talents and effort of colleagues not only at PUP, but at our partner institutions, The Einstein Papers Project at Caltech, the Albert Einstein Archive at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and the online platform firm, Tizra.  PUP will add new volumes as they appear roughly every eighteen months.

—Peter Dougherty

Read what these other university presses have to say on the future of scholarly publishing, from the value of acquisitions work and the meaning of gatekeeping in the digital era, to how university presses are picking up the slack left by trade publishers:

Indiana University Press

Oxford University Press

George Mason University Press

University Press of Colorado

University Press of Kansas

UNC Press

West Virginia University Press

Johns Hopkins University Press

University of Georgia Press

Children’s Literature for Grownups #ReadUp

Have you ever found yourself returning to a book considered “children’s literature?” There’s just something about our favorite children’s books that can draw us in. What’s with the magnetism? Children’s books are a part of our literary foundation, and some of the best ones hold a special place in our hearts. Or is it something more?

k10538Remember reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? First published in 1865, PUP is publishing a new edition in honor of the 150th anniversary, illustrated by none other than the famous surrealist, Salvador Dalí.

The whimsical world of Wonderland holds a special charm for both children and adults. You can bet more adults will be purchasing this item for themselves than for their children, both for the sense of nostalgia and for the promise of new things that children’s books inevitably hold. This promise is much more prominent in children’s books than it is in adult books because children’s books are written differently. They are written with the idea that they will likely be revisited, often including multiple layers and facets. Just ask Neil Gaiman. In a recent article, Gaiman notes that “When I’m writing for kids, I’m always assuming that a story, if it is loved, is going to be re-read. So I try and be much more conscious of it than I am with adults.”

Re-reading a children’s book as an adult brings the gift of new perspective. Would you read A Wrinkle in Time or The Hobbit the same way now as you did when you were 10? We might find and identify common themes, or develop sympathies for characters we formerly loved to hate. When we revisit these stories later in life, we read them with a new lens, one altered by experience and time, often picking up on new and interesting tidbits that we never knew existed. This is particularly true of fairy tales. If these Disney-esque stories are meant for children, why do we, as adults, enjoy them so much? The answer probably lies in their adult origins. One of PUP’s most popular recent books is The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition. The first edition. Take note.k10300

AndreaDezso_BrothersGrimm3As David Barnett states in The Guardian in a piece titled, Adult content warning: beware fairy stories, “Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm . . . did not set out to collect the stories that bear their name in order to entertain children. They were primarily collectors and philologists, who assembled their tales as part of a life’s work. . . . And they were surprised when the adults who bought their collections of fairy tales to read to their children began to complain about the adult nature of the content.”

These stories were not polished and sanitized until much later. Originally, they were filled with violence and other adult content. (As evidenced by the picture on the above left, by Andrea Dezsö, featured in PUP’s The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm). This image is from a tale entitled Herr Fix-It-Up. Herr Fix-It-Up must complete tasks denoted by a lord and king in order to win the lord his princess bride. One of the tasks is to kill a unicorn that’s been “causing a great deal of damage.” By today’s standards, beheading of unicorns is hardly the stuff of children’s tales, but these tales are more sociological accounts than children’s stories, reflecting the sensibilities of the time period and place in which they were written.

UntitledOthk10312er “children’s” books expand on this very aspect of fairy tales, including The Fourth Pig by Naomi Mitchison. Mitchison takes many of the classic tales of our childhood including Hansel and Gretel and The Little Mermaid and re-imagines them for an older audience.

As a fairly new member of the press, it never occurred to me that some titles on our list would include some of my old favorites. What children’s books do you love more as an adult?


You can take a tour of the gorgeous interior of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland here:



Feature image by Steve Czajka –

Frontispiece designed by Gertrude Hermes