Steve Nadis: A History in Sum


Steve Nadis (NASW member) and Shing-Tung Yau
Harvard University Press, Nov 1, 2013, $39.95
ISBN: 978-0674725003

Steve Nadis

Nadis reports:

A History in Sum grew out of my previous book, The Shape of Inner Space (Basic Books, 2010), which I also wrote with Harvard mathematician Shing-Tung Yau.

By the time the former book was complete, Yau had become chair of the Harvard Mathematics Department, and asked me if I’d be interested in writing a book about the history of mathematics at Harvard. I said yes right away, even though I did not yet appreciate the richness of the subject.

I quickly discovered, in the course of my research, that the mathematicians from Harvard who’d made the biggest contributions to their respective fields (and in some cases inventing their fields) — people like Benjamin Peirce, George David Birkhoff, Lars Ahlfors, and Oscar Zariski — were fascinating individuals with compelling life stories. I also learned that the history of mathematics at Harvard, the nation’s oldest university, constituted a vital part of the history of mathematics in the United States and beyond.

Something else became apparent while writing this book that I probably should have known at the outset: describing 20th century mathematics to nonprofessionals — including topics like algebraic geometry, complex analysis, category theory, and representation theory — is extraordinarily difficult. A mathematician friend told me in the early going that I was crazy to attempt it. I was relieved afterwards, when he reported that I just might have pulled it off.

Although I’m quite proud of this book, I realize that it may not be for everyone. Another friend I know through coaching youth soccer couldn’t quite grasp the notion of the history of mathematics. “Two plus two equals four,” he said. “And that’s never going to change.”

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The path from idea to book may take myriad routes. The Advance Copy column, started in 2000 by NASW volunteer book editor Lynne Lamberg, features NASW authors telling the stories behind their books. Authors are asked to report how they got their idea, honed it into a proposal, found an agent and a publisher, funded and conducted their research, and organized their writing process. They also are asked to share what they wish they’d known when they started or would do differently next time, and what advice they can offer aspiring authors. Lamberg edits the authors’ answers to produce the Advance Copy reports.

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