Tuesday, September 24, 2013


Nothing like Christmas in September!!
I realize that for some of you, shiny objects, or 72-inch TVs, or items that house 8-cylinder engines are examples of great presents, but for me nothing beats finding a delightful hitherto-unfamiliar math book in a thrift store for a couple of bucks (…ok, so maybe I'm kinda different). Such was my luck this past weekend when I stumbled upon a 1985 MAA volume, "Mathematical People: Profiles and Interviews," covering 25 mathematicians, including some I'd not heard of, in addition to ones I already revere. The interviews and profiles are fantastic… I could probably find enough quotes in this volume to inspire a year's-worth of blog posts.
Of course I read the interview with Martin Gardner first, and will note this fanciful passage that has nothing to do with mathematics, but does indicate Gardner's quirky, self-deprecating side (as so much of the interview does)...
The questioner has asked Gardner about one of his lesser known works, "The Annotated Casey At the Bat," and Martin replies as follows:
"Oh, I have always been interested in the fact that there are poems that are not great poetry but seem to outlast the entire poetic output of poets who were very famous in their day. I guess the best term for them is popular verse. They don't pretend to be great poems and yet a single poem written by an individual like Thayer, who wrote 'Casey At the Bat,' can go on and on and on, and everybody knows about it. It will probably be remembered after everybody's forgotten every poem ever written by, say, Ezra Pound. This has always struck me as a very curious phenomenon. So I did an article on the history of "Casey At the Bat" that I sold to "Sports Illustrated." That was how it started. After it appeared, it occurred to me that I might put together an anthology of sequels to Casey. That's what the book is, a collection of the original poem with sequels by various other people. Then I annotated all the poems with sort of fake annotations to tie them all together in a connected story. The book is done as kind of a joke. It didn't sell too well either."
Wonderful! ...and "a very curious phenomenon" indeed. Of course the entire 8-page interview is wonderful and covers a lot of ground.

As best I can tell, this volume was just the first of 2 or 3 that were promoted by MAA over the years, interviewing mathematicians of note.

Anyway, as to the synchronicity... I read the Gardner chapter and a couple of others on the weekend, and then yesterday (Monday) afternoon turned to the chapter on Persi Diaconis, who is likely familiar to many of you. I was aware of Persi but had little knowledge of his background... his story/interview almost reads like a novel it is so entrancing... I won't even try to tell it here, I couldn't do it justice, but great stuff! (and you're in luck, the whole volume is online as a pdf here: http://m.friendfeed-media.com/574744643c8bfd0c38da553e42b4a739deebe1c4 with Diaconis's interview beginning on page 58; Gardner's begins on pg. 86, but every profile worth reading).
Blown away from reading Diaconis's life-path, I put the book down to go retrieve my daily mail, and there in the mailbox was a plain brown manila package... it might as well have been crimson-wrapped with green ribbon and sparkles! -- it was a review copy of Martin Gardner's brand new autobiography... with Foreword written by... taa daaa!... Diaconis. The volume is a short, delicious 200 pages -- I'll no doubt have a review up at some point over at MathTango (though it's almost redundant and trite for me to write one given my bias for all things Gardner!).

I'm not sure that Martin would put much weight in "synchronicity" (at least of the Jungian sort)... but as for myself, well, I swear I'm feelin' some v-v-vvvibes here! :-)

(image via eyehook.com/CreativeCommons License)

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