What’s on the horizon at Princeton University Press? Plenty! Take a stroll through our fantastic lineup of forthcoming books:
What’s on the horizon at Princeton University Press? Plenty! Take a stroll through our fantastic lineup of forthcoming books:
Princeton University Press is excited to announce a presence on Instagram, where we’ll be featuring posts on our most visually compelling books, award-winning design, new offerings from our art and architecture list, publishing stories and more. Follow us at @PrincetonUPress !
Princeton University Press is excited to launch our Instagram! Follow us here for book news and a behind the scenes look at publishing. #publishing #firstpost #booksofinstagram #bookstagram #PrincetonUniversityPress #princeton #academicpublishing #academicbooks
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Princeton University Press is excited to announce a new partnership with Aeon Magazine. Since September 2012, Aeon has “been publishing some of the most profound and provocative thinking on the web. It asks the biggest questions and finds the freshest, most original answers, provided by world-leading authorities on science, philosophy and society.” Aeon’s publishing platform is an excellent place for showcasing our authors’ thought leadership. When one of their articles takes off, it does so in style: Robert Epstein’s recent essay about why the brain is not a computer received over 375,000 views in just 4 days. In addition Aeon viewing statistics are counted by Altmetric, so they contribute to any measurement of academic impact.
Starting this June, Princeton University Press authors, past and present, will be contributing regular essays to Aeon’s Ideas section, and participating in various discussions that will be featured on a new, dedicated partnership page that features PUP authors and their work. We will be simultaneously featuring these essays on the PUP blog – a growing outlet for intellectual discourse. Check out the inaugural essays in this partnership by philosopher Jason Stanley and political scientist Justin Smith here. We hope you’ll follow us on Aeon.
–Debra Liese, PUP Social Media Manager & blog editor
In honor of Black History Month, PUP has chosen twenty of the most relevant, intriguing books published by university presses, ranging from poetry to prose, modern critiques to historical accounts. Included are recent PUP titles, Story/Time: The Life of an Idea by Bill T. Jones, The Notebooks by Jean-Michel Basquiat, and The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros by Galawdewos. Don’t miss the links to these titles’ design stories on our Tumblr design blog.
1. We Could Not Fail: The First African Americans in the Space Program by Richard Paul & Steven Moss (University of Texas Press)
2. Despite the Best Intentions: How Racial Inequality Thrives in Good Schools by Amanda E. Lewis & John B. Diamond (Oxford University Press)
3. Forest Primeval by Vievee Francis (Northwestern University Press)
4. Stigma and Culture: Last-Place Anxiety in Black America by J. Lorand Matory (University of Chicago Press)
5. The Notebooks by Jean-Michel Basquiat (Princeton University Press)
6. Thin Description:Ethnography and the African Hebrew Isrealites of Jerusalem by John L. Jackson, Jr (Harvard University Press)
7. Black Georgetown Remembered: A History of Its Black Community from the Founding to “The Town of George” in 1751 to the Present Day
by Kathleen Menzie Lesko, Valerie Babb, and Carroll R. Gibbs (Georgetown University Press)
8. Racing to Justice: Transforming Our Conception of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society by John A. Powell (Indiana University Press)
9. Florynce “Flo” Kennedy: The Life of a Black Feminist Radical by Sherie M. Randolph (University of North Carolina Press)
10. Black Women in Sequence: Re-inking Comics, Graphic Novels, and Anime by Deborah Elizabeth Whaley (University of Washington Press)
11. Blinded by Sight: Seeing Race Through the Eyes of the Blind by Osagie K. Obasogie (Stanford University Press)
12. Better Git It in Your Soul: An Interpretive Biography of Charles Mingus by Krin Gabbard (University of California Press)
13. African American Slang: A Linguistic Description by Maciej Widawski (Cambridge University Press)
14. Tracing Southern Storytelling in Black and White by Sarah Gilbreath Ford (University of Alabama Press)
15. Fly Away by Peter M. Rutkoff and William B. Scott (John Hopkins University Press)
16. The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros: A Seventeenth-Century African Biography of an Ethiopian Woman by Galawdewos (Princeton University Press)
17. The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City by Eric Avila (University of Minnesota Press)
18. Beauty Shop Politics: African American Women’s Activism in the Beauty Industry by Tiffany M. Gill (University of Illinois Press)
19. Walking from the Dream: The Struggle for Civil Rights in the Shadow of Martin Luther King, Jr. by David L. Chappell (Duke University Press)
20. Story/Time: The Life of an Idea by Bill T. Jones (Princeton University Press)
By Nick Higham
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
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).
This article is cross posted to Nick Higham’s blog.
Check out the Princeton Companion to Applied Math here.
The Princeton University Press “Best of 2015” list is a testament to those recent PUP titles that have resonated with a broad array of readers in prominent publications around the world. Congratulations to our authors. —Peter Dougherty
Astronomers 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”.
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.
Need a last minute gift for the budding birder on your list? Detailing tips and unveiling critical techniques, Better Birding: Tips, Tools, and Concepts for the Field by George L. Armistead and Brian L. Sullivan helps the novice bird watcher to transition into a sophisticated and well-informed birder. With hundreds of impressive photos and composite plates, Better Birding allows readers to efficiently organize and memorize various bird species that aid the identification and watching process. By learning the bird’s behaviors, taxonomy, and habitat, recognition is quicker and easier. This slideshow of stunning photos is simply a limited selection from this remarkable field guide.
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).
Mathematicians 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 Gamwell‘s 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:
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).
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.
Translated by Nile Green
Muslim Views on the Enlightenment: On Famous Thinkers & Social Niceties
As 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.
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
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….
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.
According to Mark Denny, the time is right for biomechanics to be folded into the broader study of ecology. In Ecological Mechanics, Denny explains how the principles of physics and engineering can be used to understand the remarkable ways plants and animals interact with each other and their surroundings, and how this controls where species can survive and reproduce. Recently, Denny shared some thoughts on the emerging discipline and his new book:
Ecological mechanics is not something I’ve heard of. Is it a new field of study?
MD: Yes and no. Biomechanics, the field in which I was raised, has traditionally focused on trying to understand how individual plants and animals work: how they are shaped to perform certain functions, what materials they are constructed from, how they interact with wind and moving water. But this biomechanical perspective has matured to the point where it can now be productively applied to questions of how individuals interact. In other words, the time is right for biomechanics to be folded into the broader study of ecology. That’s the basic idea of the book: to reveal to ecologists can they benefit from incorporating some physics and engineering in their approach, to challenge biomechanics to extend their expertise beyond the individual, to bring two well established disciplines together.
Can you give me a good example of ecological mechanics in action?
MD: I’d be delighted to! Let’s take coral reefs. They are an iconic example of how an assemblage of plants and animals interact to build a community that can grow and persist in a physically stressful environment, in this case the wave-beaten shores of tropical islands. But coral reefs exist in a delicate balance. Fish that shelter among branching coral colonies eat the seaweeds that otherwise would outcompete corals for space on the reef. If too many of the branching corals are broken by waves, the fish population declines, and the seaweeds take over. So, the state of the reef is a complex interaction between fluid mechanics (which governs wave forces), solid mechanics (which governs the ability of corals to resist those forces), and ecology, (which accounts for the community-wide consequences of coral breakage). But ecologists have had no way to predict how these interactions will play out as climate changes. Fortunately, ecological mechanics can now provide the answer. By taking into account both the predicted increase in intensity of tropical cyclones and the reduction in strength of corals due to ocean acidification, we can use the principles of engineering to accurately predict the change in species composition on a reef, and, from that, to use ecological principles to predict the change in competitive interactions between corals and seaweeds.
What’s the scope of the subject matter?
MD: Broad! In the first section we cover basic concepts from the physics of diffusion to fluid mechanics. We then use those concepts to understand the forces that plants and animals encounter both on land and in water, how animals move, and how the environment affects the temperature of everything, both living and dead. Then there’s a section on the mechanics of materials: how the chemical composition of a structure determines its stiffness and strength, how the shape of the structure affects the forces imposed on materials, and how structures interact in dynamic fashion with their surrounds. We then finish up by tying together the information from the previous sections. We explore how variation in the environment affects the plants’ and animals’ performance, and how that variation changes through time and space. We delve into the statistics of extremes (which can be used to predict the likelihood of ecological catastrophes), and we see how physics causes ecological patterns to emerge even in physically uniform habitats. There’s plenty here for both terrestrial and aquatic biologists, at scales ranging from the molecular to the global.
What tools will I take away from reading Ecological Mechanics?
MD: Great question. In a nut shell, you should come away with enough practical knowledge not only to understand the ecomechanics literature, but also to start working as a practicing ecomechanic. The chapter on thermal mechanics, for instance, teaches you how to construct a head-budget model for an organism that you can use to predict body temperature in any environment. The chapter on scale transition theory provides a recipe for predicting how the average performance of a population will change as the population spreads through space.
Sounds pretty technical, though. How much of a background in physics, math, and engineering would one need?
MD: Not much, actually. If you’ve had a course in basic physics somewhere along the line, and remember a reasonable amount of the algebra you learned in high school, the ideas presented here are should be easy to absorb. My own formal background in math and physics is absolutely minimal. Most of what I know about engineering I learned by explaining it to myself, and I think that has put me in a good position to explain this material to others. Readers are likely to be pleasantly surprised at how far a little bit of mathematics and basic physics can take them.
Given the scope and level of the discussion, what do you see as the audience for Ecological Mechanics?
MD: I wrote this text with several audiences in mind. First, there are ecologists and biomechanics actively involved in research, everyone from undergraduates on up. I feel certain that the breadth of information presented here will provide them with new perspectives on their subjects, new ways of thinking about the ways in which plants and animals interact with each other and with their environment, and the tools to explore those thoughts. The text can also be used as the basis for an upper-level undergraduate course. Combining as it does biomechanics and ecology, it could easily fit into a general curriculum in biology. It could equally well provide accessory information for other courses; various chapters could be used in isolation in a general biomechanics course, for instance, or a general course in ecology. And lastly, I hope there is an audience among folks who are just interested in science. Ecological mechanics involves such a compelling mixture of physical and biological science; I’m hoping that people will pick up this book just to scratch the itch of curiosity.
How did someone with little background in math and physics end up in a field like ecological mechanics?
MD: Pure serendipity. Like so many people, I went to college planning to go to medical school. I majored in zoology, avoided math, and put off taking physics until my senior year, and even then I took it pass/fail. But I found that physics offered a different (and intriguing) way of thinking about the world. And that really clicked into place when, in my final semester, I took a biomechanics course from Steve Wainwright and Steve Vogel. They showed me how the physics perspective could be applied to biology, and I’ve been riding that wow!! feeling ever since. I’d love to pass that excitement along to others, and books like this are best way I know to do that.
Mark Denny is the John B. and Jean DeNault Professor of Marine Sciences at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, California. His books include Biology and the Mechanics of the Wave-Swept Environment, Air and Water, and How the Ocean Works.
With the holiday season upon us, we’re busy decorating, planning out menus worthy of a 5-star restaurant, and worrying about gifts. But underneath the material chaos, many may be thinking more consciously of the holidays their families celebrate and their religious roots.
This holiday season, PUP has several books that explore major world religions and what they mean—and have meant throughout history.
First up is the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, which begins on December 6th of this year and ends on the 14th. The Love of God, published this Fall, takes readers on an exploration of one of the most essential aspects of Judaism—the love of God.
Delving into the origins of the concept and tracing its beginnings to the ancient institution of the covenant, Jon D. Levenson explains the love of God in Judaism as a profoundly personal two-way relationship, expressed in God’s love for the people of Israel. Levenson examines the ways in which this bond has endured through countless persecutions and tribulations. To read further on Levenson’s thoughts on his new book, check out his recent Q&A here.
Not long after Hanukkah comes to an end this year, the celebration of the prophet’s birthday occurs on the 24th of December in the US. While there are mixed ideas of how to celebrate the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday—celebrations can range from parades, decorations, readings, and food donations—others make it a time of quiet reflection and choose to fast or put aside more time to read the Koran.
The late Shahab Ahmed’s book, What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic, is a fascinating new look at Islam that challenges many preconceived notions. Ahmed re-imagines a new concept of the historical constitution of Islamic law while placing it in a philosophical, ethical, and political context. An important read for anyone looking to see the religion of Islam in a new and intriguing light.
The birth of Jesus Christ is a story Christians and non-Christians alike are familiar with, but many who celebrate Christmas are unacquainted with other aspects of the Christian faith. George Marsden’s C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity: A Biography takes readers on the journey that C.S. Lewis took from atheism to Anglicanism in his well-known book, Mere Christianity. Marsden delves into Lewis’s passionate defense of the Christian religion and explores how it correlates to Lewis’s Narnia books and other writings, describing why Lewis’s case for Christianity has endured for so long, continuing to cultivate both critics and fervent admirers to this day.
These three books are a wonderful way to take a break this holiday season (and every holiday season for that matter) and reflect on why we celebrate these holidays and what they say about our closely held traditions.
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