Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Review of ‘Recountings’ by Joel Segel

This is a fascinating history of mathematics at MIT covering the period of post WWII to the present. It gives a detailed account of how mathematics at MIT was converted from a service department for engineers to the high class research department over this period.
This is a book for the layman and also academics who work in such environments. Many mathematics departments throughout the world could do well be investing in this book and emulating a lot of the work done at MIT. The book highlights that the main reason for the transformation was by hiring some of best mathematicians in the world.
The book has a different style to mathematics books for the layman in the sense that it is based on a collection of interviews with 12 members of MIT and the widow of Norman Levison.
The author highlights some well known stories about the men (apart from the first interview which is with Fagi Levison all the other 12 interviews are with men) in mathematics at MIT such as how they were hooked into the institute from other organisations. Additionally the book highlights the arguments within the department between pure and applied mathematicians.
My main reservations regarding the book are:
• It contains no index. This is a serious omission.
• The book does not read well in places and it should have been more thoroughly reviewed.
Generally it was a good joy to read this book and definitely worth buying.
Kuldeep Singh


Joel Segel said...

I very much appreciate your review, Kuldeep. You're absolutely right about an index: I would have preferred one, but it would have added 3-4 more weeks to an already late production schedule. I'd love to hear about any passages you thought didn't read well: I erred on the side of preserving the interviewee's voice, even if ungrammatical, but I'm sure some infelicities were simply my error. Again, thanks.

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