Steve Nadis: A History in Sum

A HISTORY IN SUM: 150 YEARS OF MATHEMATICS AT HARVARD (1825-1975)

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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Oct. 30, 2013

Advance Copy

For this column, NASW book editor Lynne Lamberg asks NASW authors to tell how they came up with the idea for their book, developed a proposal, found an agent and publisher, funded and conducted research, and put the book together. She also asks what they wish they had known before they began working on their book, what they might do differently the next time, and what tips they can offer aspiring authors. She then edits the A part of that Q&A to produce the author reports you see here.

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