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Books Without Words? An Interview with Dana Mackenzie

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In his latest book, ‘The Universe in Zero Words,’ mathematician-turned author Dana Mackenzie illustrates the power—and beauty—of the mathematical equation. Mackenzie examines 24 equations to demonstrate how they have influenced society, as well as how mathematics is a larger part of our lives than most of us are willing to admit.

How does your book address the issue of math illiteracy?
“When I was a student in the Science Communication Program at UC Santa Cruz, a visiting speaker said “For every equation you include in an article, you will lose half your audience.’ My book is an attempt to prove this conventional wisdom wrong. To me, equations are the lifeblood of mathematics, and any attempt to write about math without mentioning equations will miss some of its vitality. Math illiteracy is a huge, complicated problem, and avoidance of equations in popular science articles is only one small symptom. When a student says ‘Why should I learn this stuff? I’ll never need it,’ he or she is to some extent telling the truth. My argument to them is: okay, you may not need equations, but see how much more you can do with them!”

I’ve heard scientists say ‘I wish I could just write a paper using only math.’ Is mathematics a language where that would be possible?
“This is such a huge chasm between scientists and the public here. To many (most? all?) scientists, mathematics is the perfect language for expressing their ideas. Not only is it understand in all countries, it is vastly more precise than any other human language. The irony is that I, as a writer, must use words! The equations describe the universe in zero words. But my book is about the equations, and I have to use words to describe them. We will always need words to give context to the equations.”

Isaac Newton’s ‘Principia Naturalis’ contains a lot of formulas, too. Does your book pick up on Newton?
“I haven’t read Newton’s ‘Principia.’ However, I have read some of Galileo (‘Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems’), and I was astounded by the clarity and beauty of his writing. His ‘Dialogue’ does not contain any equations, but it is written by someone who truly thinks like a mathematician.”

“Galileo’s ‘Dialogue’ just about reaches the limit of how much you can understand about the universe without explicitly using mathematics. My ambition is much more modest than Galileo’s or Newton’s. I am not breaking any new scientific ground in this book. I am trying to tell people, ‘Look, there is this beautiful tool we have invented, and if you can learn to use it or at least not be afraid of it, you’ll find that it makes a lot of things more understandable.’”

What attracted you to this book idea?
“It was not my idea originally. The idea for a book on the history of equations came from one of the co-publishers, Elwin Street Productions. I wold have thought that any book about equations would be rejected out of hand. Once they came to me with the idea, I leaped on it!”

Why did you pick the equations you did?
“I wanted a broad selection of different kinds of equations, including some from pure mathematics (or, math for its own sake), and some from other sciences. To me, writing about the beauty of mathematics is another important part of overcoming math phobia and math illiteracy. We can’t just say ‘You have to learn this because it’s useful.’ We also need to say ‘You’ll learn to love this because it’s beautiful!’”

You mentioned that Galileo thought like a mathematician. What does it mean, to think like that?
“I would like to leave this to the reader’s imagination. Actually, if someone who didn’t know mathematics asked me, ‘What does a mathematician think like?’ I might refer him to Galileo.”

About Dana
Dana Mackenzie began his career as a mathematics professor, earning a Ph.D. in mathematics from Princeton University and teaching for several years at Duke University and Kenyon College. However, since childhood he had dreamed of being a writer. When he learned about the Science Communication Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, it was a eureka moment: he could combine his lifelong love of writing with his academic expertise in mathematics and science.

Mackenzie has written articles for Science, New Scientist, Discover, Smithsonian, and Wired. His first book for a popular audience, “The Big Splat, or How Our Moon Came to Be,” was published in 2003. Booklist magazine named it an Editor’s Choice for 2003, and Audible.com named it as one of the best audiobooks of 2010. Mackenzie’s second mass-market book, “The Universe in Zero Words: The Story of Mathematics as Told Through Equations,” was published by Princeton University Press. In addition, he has written “What’s Happening in the Mathematical Sciences,” Volumes 6-8, for the American Mathematical Society, and Volume 9 is expected in 2013.

Recommended Reading:
The Universe in Zero Words,

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