Science Book a Day Interviews Marianne Freiberger and Rachel Thomas


Special thanks to Marianne Freiberger and Rachel Thomas for answering 5 questions about their recently featured book – Numericon: A Journey Through the Hidden Lives of Numbers

Marianne Freiberger completed a PhD and then a three year postdoc at Queen Mary, University of London. As a researcher she worked in complex dynamics, the area of pure maths that has given us the Mandelbrot set. During her time as a researcher she also held various teaching engagements. In the world of maths communication she has been Editor-in-Chief of the Mathscareers website and sometimes gives presentations to mathematicians about how to communicate their work to a wider audience, and to journalists about how to deal with maths in the media. – Adapted from Authors’ Homepage

Rachel Thomas was a maths consultant in Australia working for government and industry. She recently edited the Gazette of the Australian Mathematical Society and has developed and taught science writing workshops for graduate students. Currently she is also working with Marcus du Sautoy to create mathematical walking tours and a virtual mathematical tour guide of the world for Maths in the City. Rachel obtained her MSc in Semigroup Theory in 1998 from the University of Western Australia. – Adapted from Authors’ Homepage

Author’s Homepage, +Plus Magazine:

#1 – What was the impetus for Numericon

MF: We had been thinking about writing a popular maths book for a while. The initial concept for Numericon actually came from the publisher, Quercus, who had based it on their best-selling book Etymologicon: A circular stroll throughout he hidden connections in the English language. When we were approached about Numericon we realised that the concept was perfect for us: in our work at Plus we have come across so many fascinating ideas and people over the years, and this book allowed us to pick and choose our favourites, taking our own favourite walk throughout the world of maths

RT: We think of it as showing someone around, who is visiting the world of maths where we spend our time. It’s like taking a friend on a personal tour of our favourite places, showing them our favourite landmarks and taking them to our favourite mathematical restaurant

#2 – Each chapter is a particular story. How did you decide which stories to keep and which to exclude? 

RT: Each chapter starts with a number which is a familiar way into a different area of maths. For example, the number 3 was a way for us to talk about geometry, 2 about primes, e about calculus. While there were some obvious choices for stories (say Euclid’s result about infinitely many primes) a lot of the other stories were some of the favourite things we’d come across during our work on Plus. For example, the possible link between the Riemann Hypothesis and quantum systems was from an interview we did for a project on mathematical physics. The story about ripples of death in chapter 6 was from an interview with a fascinating physicist at a conference in North America. And some stories we came across while researching the book – such as the excellent tales of mathematical duels in chapter i.

MF: It was based mostly on personal preference: we chose those stories we liked the most and thought, based on experience, people would find most fascinating. This is why Numericon isn’t just about numbers (as it was originally conceived to be) but about all of maths, its people and concepts.

#3 – Many unusual characters have been involved in the history of maths. Which were your favourites? And why? 

MF: Kurt Gödel: a shy and troubled man who almost single-handedly undermined the logical foundations of maths, had to flee from the Nazis and eventually starved himself to death for fear of being poisoned.

RT: Emmy Noether in chapter 5. Her result about the role of symmetry in physics is so beautiful, simple and profound. And her personal story is inspiring, she worked on so many fundamental areas (including significant contributions to Einstein’s general relativity) despite the obstacles of her time. And Tibor Rado in chapter 3, both because I love the maths he worked on and also the fantastic story of him learning maths while a prisoner in WWI, and then escaping with the help of Siberian eskimos to go on to become a significant mathematician.

#4 – Your book appears to be an extension of your +Plus Magazine. What did a book allow you to do that the website didn’t? 

RT: I think the book allowed us to take readers on a longer journey, to spend more time pondering particular parts of maths, or particular stories. I think with Plus we are having a chat with readers over a cup of tea and a piece of cake. While with Numericon we were loading up the van and taking them on a road trip!

#5 – Are you working on any new books/projects you can tell us about?

MF: We do have a few ideas for other books — one is an accessible journey through the perplexing world of quantum field theory with its many fascinating characters.

RT: And as well of that we’re really busy working on some really exciting things for Plus, including exploring mathematical creativity and investigating the mathematics of information.

[Image Supplied by Author ]

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