Mircea Pitici on the best mathematics writing of 2016

PiticiThe Best Writing on Mathematics 2016 brings together the year’s finest mathematics writing from around the world. In the 2016 edition, Burkard Polster shows how to invent your own variants of the Spot It! card game, Steven Strogatz presents young Albert Einstein’s proof of the Pythagorean Theorem, Joseph Dauben and Marjorie Senechal find a treasure trove of math in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Andrew Gelman explains why much scientific research based on statistical testing is spurious. And there’s much, much more. Read on to learn about how the essays are chosen, what is meant by the ‘best’ mathematics writing, and why Mircea Pitici, the volume editor, enjoys putting this collection together year after year:

What is new in the new volume of The Best Writing on Mathematics series?

The content is entirely new, as you expect! The format is the same as in the previous volumes—with some novelties. Notably, this volume has figures in full color, in line with the text (not just an insert section of color figures). Also, the reference section at the end of the book is considerably more copious than ever before; besides a long list of notable writings and a list of special journal issues on mathematical topics, I offer two other resources: references for outstanding book reviews on mathematics and references for interviews with mathematical people. I included these additional lists to compensate for the rule we adopted from the start of the series, namely that we will not include in the selection pieces from these categories. Yet book reviews and interviews are important to the mathematical community. I hope that the additional bibliographic research required to do these lists is worth the effort; these references can guide the interested readers if they want to find materials of this sort on their own. The volume is not only an anthology to read and enjoy but also a research tool for the more sophisticated readers.

What do you mean by “the best” writings—and are the pieces you include in this volume really the best?

The superlative “best” in the title caused some controversy at the beginning. By now, perhaps most readers understand (and accept, I hope) that “best” denotes the result of a comparative, selective, and subjective procedure involving several people, including pre-selection reviewers who remain anonymous to me. Every year we leave out exceptional writings on mathematics, due to the multiple constraints we face when preparing these anthologies. With this caveat disclosed, I am confident that the content satisfies the most exigent of readers.

Where do you find the texts you select for these anthologies?

I survey an immense body of literature on mathematics published mainly in academic journals, specialized magazines, and mass media. I have done such searches for many years, even before I found a publisher for the series. I like to read what people write about mathematics. A comprehensive survey is not possible but I aspire to it; I do both systematic and random searches of publications and databases. A small proportion of the pieces we consider are suggested to me either by their authors or by other people. I always consider such pieces; some of them made it into the books, most did not.

Who are the readers you have in mind, for the volumes in this series?

The books are addressed to the public, in the sense that a curious reader with interest toward mathematics can understand most of the content even if their mathematical training is not sophisticated. And yet, at the same time, the series may also interest mathematical people who want to place mathematics in broad social, cultural, and historical contexts. I am glad that we struck a good balance, making this series accessible to these very different audiences.

Why should people read about mathematics, in addition to (or instead of) learning and doing mathematics?

Mathematics is to a high degree self-contained and self-explanatory, in no need for outside validation. One can do mathematics over a lifetime and not care about “the context.” From a broader intellectual perspective though, interpreting mathematics in social-historical contexts opens up the mind to grasping the rich contribution made by mathematics and mathematicians to ubiquitous aspects of our daily lives, to events, trends, and developments, and to imagining future possibilities. Writing about mathematics achieves such a contextual placement, unattainable by doing mathematics.

What drives you to edit the volumes in this series?

Curiosity, interest in ideas, joy in discovering talented people who show me different perspectives on mathematics; foremost, fear of dogmatism. This last point might sound strange; I readily admit that it is rooted in my life experience, growing up in Romania and emigrating to the U.S. (now I am a naturalized citizen here). Editing this series comes down to a simple recipe: I edit books I will enjoy reading; that sets a high bar by default, since I am a demanding reader. Editing this series allows me to have a personal rapport with mathematics, different from the rapport everyone else has with it. It’s my thing, my placement in relationship with this complicated human phenomenon we call ‘mathematics.’ Or, rather, it is one facet of my rapport to mathematics, one that transpired to the public and gained acceptance. I relate to mathematics in other ways, also important to me—but those facets remain unacknowledged yet, despite my (past) efforts to explain them. Most dramatically, once I went to a business school full of ideas about mathematics and how it relates to the world. At that well-known business school, a handful of faculty dressed down my enthusiasm so efficiently that I learned to be guarded in what I say. After that misadventure of ideas in a place that supposedly encouraged creative thinking, I lost confidence in my persuasive abilities and, disappointed, I gave up on expressing my views on mathematics. Instead, I now rejoice in accomplishing the next best thing: finding and promoting other people’s originality, not mine!

Are you working on the next volume in the series?

The content of the next volume is already selected. We are close to approaching the production stage.

Mircea Pitici holds a PhD in mathematics education from Cornell University and is working on a master’s degree in library and information science at Syracuse University. He has edited The Best Writing on Mathematics since 2010.