Read-together math books for kids

Young kids love books like Goodnight Moon and parents love to read it to them.   Does it matter whether the toddler thinks of the moon, the rhythms of the day, the rhythm of the words, the magic of transitions and change, and so many other beautifully embedded ideas in the same way adults expect them to?  It may be interesting to study what and how a child absorbs through the pictures, the words, the voice, and the reader’s presence during read-along (in fact many people have, including this interesting piece by Anne E. Fernald.), but it is also likely that there are mysteries to a child’s mental process that are far from our understanding.  Whatever the case may be, Goodnight Moon is extremely popular, and one reason could be just the way it helps a child and parent to bond around a single moment of shared experience, both ordinary and familiar yet magical and sublime.

Inexplicable gems like Goodnight Moon are rare but what can publishers learn from them?  Could there be such a thing as read-along math books for kids?  Mathematicians know that appreciating and doing mathematics requires flexibility as well as a structure, imagination as well as logic, but that view of math often does not reach youngsters (or even many adults).  As Paul Lockhart asks in his Lament, would children be inspired by music, if they were forced to first learn musical notation and theory?  Similarly would we require a child to master spelling and grammar before reading them a story?   Aspiring engineers and scientists have examples of useful discoveries and powerful tools to entice them.  How can we present mathematics to kids when math’s highest level practitioners work within a language and form that most people don’t have the tools to perceive?

The contents of math books for children has often been governed by what schools decide is appropriate mathematics for each age group to grasp.   Being good at math is equated with being faster at learning this material, but there is a benefit to exposing all children to mathematics.  For one thing, mathematical talent is not always easy to recognize. There are mathematical leaders whose vast imagination and deep intuition were not  recognized at an early age.  Who knows which child could, after a glimpse of the possibilities, be catapulted onward to the unlimited reaches of mathematical endeavor.  And if people benefit from a broad knowledge of other subjects, and from the arts, they can also be enriched by an exposure to mathematics as a creative and exploratory subject.  Even for the average student, such a view of math could give them something more in this world to contemplate and enjoy.

Mathematical ideas are universal, and there is much for a child of any age to respond to: intriguing patterns, surprising structures that appear as if by magic out of seemingly random chaos, puzzles that sound hard but have simple solutions, and puzzles that sound easy but are very very hard.  Closely identifying mathematics books for children with a an educational agenda (unlike story books, music and art) can severely limit their range.  Mathematically intriguing pictures and ideas, and reading together with an adult or older sibling can lead to pleasant discussions of “why” and “what if”?   Some children may still groan or feel blase about the need to learn multiplication tables, rules of algebra, and geometry proofs, but in the back of their minds they may also recognize that mathematics can be kind of cool, sometimes a bit wacky and unexpected, and sometimes rather entertaining and memorable.

Featured Book of the Day

The Infinite Farm by Richard Evan Schwartz

This is Schwartz’s fourth children’s book published with the AMS, and is written in his recognizable and unique style.    But while there was a significant instructional component of the first three books, this latest is more suggestive and open-ended.  We find ourselves in a world with an unfamiliar geometry that allows infinite objects to live in a bounded space.   Whether you know the rigorous mathematical underpinnings of this world, or just want to explore in it, this book is a fun read.

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The Web and Books of the Future

Given the way the internet has become firmly entrenched in our lives, how do you think books of the future will look and how will these “new books” be read and used?   Is the web making books obsolete, or will a new kind of book emerge from within the web world?

I’m thinking of the possible development of a post web “new book” in analogy to the way our current books evolved from oral tradition.  For example, it seems natural that linear narrative should grow out of oral histories, songs,  poetry, and rote memorization and repetition of speeches.  The text of most books transcribes what could also be narrated.     The major difference is that, being physical objects, books have permanence and can be distributed widely.   Some of the freedom and fluidity is lost when a relatively small group of people decide what to print and disseminate in bulk, but there are established mechanisms to preserve a level of consistency and quality and books can reach beyond the inner circle to unimaginably far away worlds.

With the internet, free-flowing information has re-emerged, and a new establishment (or anti-establishment) has formed. People regularly go to the internet instead of to books for information, enrichment and entertainment.   They “go” not to bookstores and libraries, but to websites that resonate with their beliefs and suit their tastes.  The result is a new sort of “village”.  The modern version of a “village” may be geographically diverse but narrowly focused, and miles apart from other “villages.” In other words, the internet gives us more choices, but  it takes conscious effort not to let it reinforce our prejudices and phobias.

What will be the “new book”?  Multiple screens and interactive features?  Intelligent merging of aural, visual and kinetic elements to optimize absorption?  Will books, music, and film merge into one another?

And in all this, how will the concept of authorship evolve?

As always, your comments are welcome!


Featured Book of the Day

Class Field Theory by Emil Artin and John Tate

This classic book, originally published in 1968, is based on notes of a year-long seminar the authors ran at Princeton University. The primary goal of the book was to give a rather complete presentation of algebraic aspects of global class field theory, and the authors accomplished this goal spectacularly: for more than 40 years since its first publication, the book has served as an ultimate source for many generations of mathematicians.

In this revised edition, two mathematical additions complementing the exposition in the original text are made. The new edition also contains several new footnotes, additional references, and historical comments.

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Solutions to Exercises in Math Textbooks

This is a question for mathematics instructors: How do you feel about having solutions available for the exercises in a math textbook? What if the solutions are available on the internet?

Some colleges and universities have guidelines for how instructors should treat the possibility of cheating on homework (e.g. looking for solutions on the web rather than working problems out). I taught at about five different colleges and universities. Four of them had honor codes, which gave the instructor the luxury of giving students their assignments and instructions and assuming that they complied honestly, whether they did or not. It was up to the administration to sort out egregious problems and the students’ own consciences to deal with mild ones.

My favorite tactic was to simply make homework count for only a small part of the grade, and place more emphasis on in-class tests and quizzes. The homework is useful for studying, students could  work together or work with a solution guide as they pleased.

And there is a third option: to give homework problems whose solutions are not available or very difficult to access online or in books. Is this the high ground approach, or is it simply impractical and too much trouble considering questionable benefits?

What do you think?  Should textbooks contain solutions to problems, or should the problems only be made available to instructors in a separate manual, or online accessible only by password?


Featured Book of the Day

Integers, Fractions and Arithmetic by Judith Sally and Paul Sally.  This book was co-published by the AMS and MSRI as part of a Math Circles Program for K-8 teachers.  The book consists of twelve interactive seminars, and gives a comprehensive and careful study of the fundamental topics of K–8 arithmetic. The guide aims to help teachers understand the mathematical foundations of number theory in order to strengthen and enrich their mathematics classes.

I would describe the approach to exercises in this book as: use very few and explain the solutions carefully and completely.

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Libraries and the art of browsing

Those of you over a certain age may remember when searching for math resources meant going to the library and perusing the subject catalog, spending time in shelving sections devoted to a topic, or leafing through heavy volumes of math reviews. Along the way, you found things you did not expect, leading to further trails and discoveries. You might remember musty smells, occasional hushed sounds, dark lighting, and the heft and texture of the volumes. There was a feeling of timelessness and escape from the real world in a library.

Today libraries seem quite different. Science and math libraries have well-lit, large spaces filled with tables and power outlets, conducive to sitting with a laptop and connecting to web-based resources with hardly a book in sight. Many hard copy books are available only by special order, and browsing is now almost completely digital.

What do you feel are the pros and cons of new library designs? How do today’s libraries affect the way you browse for books?

Your comments are welcome!

Featured Book of the Day

A Mathematical Gallery  by Lisl Gaal

This book started as a picture book by mathematician and artist Lisl Gaal for her children and grandchildren. The illustrations depict whimsical creatures and settings juxtaposed with simple yet far-reaching mathematical ideas that appeal to every age group. Readers are encouraged to explore and understand at their own level and pace. A child of any age could read and re-read this book for years, picking up new insights each time.

(Supplementary text is included for educators and advanced readers.)


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Author Interview: John Roe

John Roe studied with Michael Atiyah at Oxford, and his research has focused on the interaction of index theory and large scale or “coarse” geometry. After teaching at Oxford for twelve years he became Professor of Mathematics at Penn State in 1998. He has written a number of books, starting with Elliptic Operators, Topology and Asymptotic Methods in 1988 and including several published by the AMS. His most recent book, Winding Around, was published by the AMS in 2015, and he has also added several lecture note sets to the Open Math Notes project. Mathematics for Sustainability, a text for a quantitative reasoning course for non-mathematicians, is expected in 2018 from Springer.

What made you decide to write the book “Winding Around”? The spark for Winding Around was lit when I was about nine. My dad drew an incredibly convoluted simple closed curve (something like Figure 4.3 in the book),
made a dot on the paper somewhere in the midst of the convolutions, and asked me, “Is that inside or outside the curve?” I knew about maze puzzles so naturally enough I picked up my pencil and drew a path starting at his
dot, staying between the lines and heading, so I hoped, towards the exterior. After several minutes of wrong turns and entanglements I was finally able to announce, “Outside”. Then he did something I did not expect. He took a straightedge and drew a line directly from his point to the exterior. “But it crosses the curve”, I complained. He didn’t respond directly but just started at the exterior of the curve and marked off O, I, O, I…“outside”, “inside”, “outside”, “inside”, changing at every crossing until he arrived at the original dot. I saw at once what was going on and I have never forgotten that “aha” moment.

Wait, you had really been planning this book since the age of nine? That would be a good story, wouldn’t it? And it’s absolutely true that that experience lit a fire for me. Another source of inspiration was something I learned from Atiyah rather later in my mathematical career: that exciting things happen when different branches of the mathematical family – analysis, topology, geometry, algebra – are made to interact in significant ways. That story is usually told in higher dimensions, as pa
rt of a grad student’s research training, but it can also be told in dimension 2. There’s a beautiful expository paper of Atiyah from the 1960s where he reviews how these different branches of mathematics approach the winding number and then goes on to say, look, if you take the correct higher-dimensional generalization of all this, you will get Bott periodicity. It had been kicking about in the back of my mind for some years that you could build an undergraduate course on that paper and when I had the chance to teach in the MASS program in fall 2013, I decided to give it a try. Winding Around was the result – a book which is centered on the many different definitions of the winding number and the ways they interact.

Tell us more about MASS. This is a unique program that has been held at Penn State for about twenty years. MASS gets a class of twenty to thirty very good students – half from Penn State, half from other institutions across the US and the world – and puts them together in this high-intensity math environment for a full semester. They are focused entirely on mathematics (as Oxford students would be, for instance) and because of that and the strong peer group they learn very fast. It’s a great context for trying the kind of experiment that produced Winding Around.

Was there a gap in the literature that you were trying to fill? To get me energized to write, a necessary condition is the sense that “no-one has ever said these things in exactly this way before, and this is how they need to be said.” Of course that can work out differently in different contexts. For myfirst book it was just, “I wish someone could have put all this together for me when I was starting my thesis”. For Winding Around, it was more “I wish undergraduate students could see all these different kinds of mathematics engaging with each other”. Of course there are plenty of books about complex analysis or plane topology, but I couldn’t find one that gave the sense of deep interconnectedness that I’ve tried to convey.

Did you use existing notes from teaching? For several books but not all of them. As I mentioned, Winding Around comes from a course in the MASS program, for which I prepared detailed notes. Lectures on Coarse Geometry comes from notes of a graduate course. Mathematics for Sustainability is based on a course that I developed for our undergraduate program. In recent years I’ve developed a very specific set of personal procedures for preparing slides and notes (in TeX) for each course I teach. But that doesn’t make it magically easier to produce a book once you have finished!

Was your writing influenced by other books? Which ones? Early in my career I was greatly influenced by Jean Dieudonné’s Foundations of Modern Analysis, which of course is very much in the Bourbaki style – all numbered paragraphs and subparagraphs, and no concessions to “intuition” such as might be suggested by (gasp) a diagram! But later, through reading Milnor I think, and also through listening to Atiyah and his colleagues explain things, I’ve moved away from that style towards something more conversational. In general I would say that exposition has played a vital part in my mathematical life. I am always “explaining” things, even if it is only to myself. I feel that if you really can explain something
clearly, you’re quite likely to discover something new about it. I suppose it is also quite likely that you’ll end up writing a lot of books ☺

How did you decide on the format and style of the book? I wanted Winding Around published in the Student Mathematical Library (as it eventually was) because I had always envisaged it as something to put in the hands of bright final-year undergraduates. But I had to fight for that a bit. Some of the AMS’s reviewers (of the first draft) wanted the book in a graduate series, with one saying something like “the book needs readers who already understand real and complex analysis, measure theory, topology and abstract algebra”. As though all these exciting ingredients have to be carefully synthesized in isolation – in laboratory conditions – before the trainee chef can be allowed to combine them! I’d rather we get cooking, and clean up the mess as we go along.

Anyhow, the compromise that (AMS chief editor) Sergei Gelfand and I arrived at was to leave the main structure of the book as it was but to add a bunch of appendices, A through G, giving capsule developments of these various items just to the extent needed in the main text. I guess this is an example of the influence of Dieudonné, who did something similar with the linear algebra he needed for his book. My ideal reader will more or less ignore the appendices – pushing through the main text, being content perhaps that some things are a little mysterious, and referring forward to an appendix only when mystery has accumulated so much as to impede progress. I wonder if this is how the book is actually read?

What next? Mathematics for Sustainability, out next year, is likely to be my last book. This is quite a departure from my previous works, both in terms of audience and content, but once again feels to me like something that has to be said. I’ve long felt that we mathematicians owe more than we presently offer to the thousands of students who take our pre-calculus courses simply to fulfil a ‘breadth’ or ‘general education’ requirement – and that we should take the opportunity, across our curriculum, to connect what we do with big challenges like climate change. Kaper and Engler’s Mathematics and Climate aims to do this at the graduate level. My co-authors and I are trying for the same connection, assuming nothing but high school algebra. It’s a tall order, but one I am very excited about!

What advice would you give to new authors? Books are magic. Is there a story that only you can tell, or tell right? Do you have the time for a long project and the discipline to add a little more each day, even when the end seems far off? Is this the right point in your career, and is your institution enlightened enough to value your work on a book appropriately? Yes, yes and yes? Go ahead and add to the magic – and good luck!

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Author Interview: Jennifer Schultens

Jennifer Schultens is Professor of Mathematics at University of California, Davis.  Her book Introduction to 3-Manifolds guides beginning graduate students through the foundations of low-dimensional topology to specialized topics such as triangulations of 3-manifolds, normal surface theory and Heegaard splittings.  A fundamental challenge to building up the language of low-dimensional topology is to connect mathematical rigor with geometric and topological visualization.  In her book, Jennifer Schultens does this seamlessly, melding clear exposition with lots of intuition-building examples, illustrations and exercises.

Question:  What made you decide to write the book? Was there a gap in the literature you were trying to fill? Did you use existing notes from teaching?

While in the process of guiding graduate students through the basics of understanding 3-manifolds, I often wished for a reference containing the knowledge that first opened my eyes to the beauty of the subject. The subject had grown and flourished since the publication of the books that I had read as a novice. I especially remember one conversation, probably in the early 2000s, with Aaron Abrams and Saul Schleimer, concerning the need for more current books on the topic of 3-manifolds. The curve complex, rapidly emerging as a central tool in the study of 3-manifolds, needed to be added to the standard repertoire of a 3-manifold topologist. As it happened, I had the opportunity in the Spring of 2003 to teach a course on 3-manifolds to a group of highly motivated graduate students at Emory University. In this course I described the subjects near and dear to my heart. I recorded my lectures in a rather terse set of notes. Over the next 10 years, these notes grew into a book.

Question: How did you decide on the format and style of the book?

I treasure the traditional mathematical style of writing: definitions, theorems, proofs. As a topologist I also find illustrations indispensable. Today’s technology, most notably LaTeX, xfig and AMS style files provide for easy typesetting. Definitions, theorems, proofs and illustrations constitute the skeleton of my book. However, the life of the book derives from the knowledge verbally passed around among low-dimensional topologists that I incorporated into the text, often informally. For instance, I included a proof of the Schoenflies Theorem given in a lecture series by Andrew Casson in China in 2002, but not otherwise in the literature. I did not attend the lectures myself, the lecture notes had been given to me by Yoav Moriah.

Question: What was the writing process like? Did you write everyday on a set schedule, or did you have periods of setting it aside?

I started out with a set of notes recorded during a course I taught in Spring of 2003. In 2006 I spoke with Sergei Gelfand who encouraged me to turn the notes into a book. Most of the writing occurred during four bouts of productivity: Summer and Fall of 2006 at the Max-Planck-Institute for Mathematics in Bonn, Germany; Spring and Summer of 2008 as I grew ever heavier during my pregnancy; Fall of 2010; and Summer and Fall of 2013, again at the Max-Planck-Institute. I found the fallow periods, the months and years when I did not think about the book, indispensable to the maturation of the project.

Question: What did you focus on the most when writing? What was the most challenging aspect? What came easily?

I focused on my vision of the subject and an imaginary reader, either a graduate student or a well known colleague, reading the book. I tried to include all the background material necessary to understand the discussion. Occasionally, I got overwhelmed by the amount of background material still needed.

Question: What were the positives and negatives of the experience? Did anything about the experience surprise you?

Looking up and (re)familiarizing myself with references proved more time consuming than I had imagined. MathSciNet, developed by the AMS, proved indispensable in the process. Through this type of diligence, I learned more about the subjects being exposited and the people involved. The book gained more depth.

Question: How did you choose a publisher? What was important to you when you made the choice?

After speaking with Sergei Gelfand in 2006, I realized that publishing with the AMS meant that the book would be in good hands. Naturally, the AMS looks after the professional interests of mathematicians. In addition, the AMS has an excellent track record regarding publishing at fair prices.

Question: Was your writing influenced by other books? Which ones?

I enjoy reading. Fiction or non-fiction, classical or modern, formal or informal, short or long, I enjoy a well-crafted piece of writing. The first mathematical text that really ‘grabbed’ me was Walter Rudin’s “Principles of Mathematical Analysis” and later his “Real and Complex Analysis.” The topology courses at UC Santa Barbara teemed with good literature: “Topology” by Munkres, “Differential Topology” by Guillemin and Pollack (also “Topology from a Differential Viewpoint” by John Milnor from which Guillemin and Pollack’s book is derived), the books on 3-manifolds by Hempel and Jaco which to me are inseparable from their interpretation by Cooper, Long and Scharlemann. Then there was Rolfsen, not just a book, but an experience. Working one’s way through Rolfsen’s “Knots and Links,” rediscovering so many of the beautiful constructions in knot theory, was a rite of passage for low-dimensional topologists of my generation. Later, I thoroughly enjoyed Silvio Levy’s digest of Thurston’s Lecture Notes and Allen Hatcher’s books.

Question: Did you find ways to get feedback while writing your book or was it a solitary effort?

My writing tends to be introspective. However, my husband, Misha Kapovich, proofread many parts of the book. His feedback helped fill in background information on several subjects, especially the final chapter of the book. This increased the time it took to complete the book, but added depth. It certainly improved the quality of the book.

Question: Did time pressure or other responsibilities help or hurt your writing?

Being an academic involves many types of activities, opportunities and responsibilities. My writing tends to be introspective. Sabbaticals are indispensable to my work on larger projects. However, the busy times, filled with teaching, attending lectures, working on committees, taking care of family, fill my thoughts in a way that informs the quieter periods during which I write.

Question: What kind of feedback did you get after the book came out?

Friends from far and near wrote to tell me that they enjoyed my book. It was nice to (re)connect. Of course, there were also some corrections. I am happy to report that the AMS maintains a web page where corrections are easily posted.

Question: What advice would you give to new authors?

Write about the things you love in a style that suits you.

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Open Math Notes: Free as in beer.

Recently, the phrase “free as in beer vs. free as in speech” caught my attention. It was the first I had heard of this way of distinguishing two English meanings of free, and how it particularly applies to what is accessible on the internet. The explanation I found is here.

The new AMS Open Math Notes site is definitely “free as in beer.” There is no cost to users who browse, upload, or download Notes. It is a place for Notes that are, for a variety of reasons, not published (typically because they are in unpolished form but are at a stage where they can benefit from public view). Notes are submitted by authors and vetted by AMS editors and advisory board members on the basis of completeness, readability, and interest to students, teachers, and researchers in mathematics.

So what about “free as in speech”? Users may only download PDF files for free, but they may not freely change and then redistribute the contents. Authors who post on AMS Open Math Notes retain all rights to their Notes. Of course, they may make their source files freely available on their own webpages or on other free posting sites. (If an author decides to “publish” the Notes commercially, self-publishing or otherwise, then they must withdraw their Notes from the AMS site.)

Let us know what you think of the “free as in beer” vs. “free as in speech” dichotomy for Open Math Notes — examples of both types of posting sites exist on the web. What do you feel are the pros and cons?

Featured Book of the Day

stml-76-covWinding Around: the Winding Number in Topology, Geometry, and Analysis,  by John Roe

This book is a popular item in the AMS Student Math Library Series, a series dedicated to non-standard math topics accessible to advanced and/or extra curious undergraduates. The book takes students on a tour of a range of advanced topics in mathematics as it displays the far-reaching consequences of the concept of winding number.

The author John Roe has also posted several lecture notes on the AMS Open Math Notes site.


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Author Interview: Hossein Giv

Hossein Hosseini Giv is an Assistant Professor of Mathematics at the University of Sistan and Baluchestan in Zahedan, Iran.  The AMS Bookstore’s description of his book Mathematical Analysis and its Inherent Nature begins, “Mathematical analysis is often referred to as generalized calculus. But it is much more than that. This book has been written in the belief that emphasizing the inherent nature of a mathematical discipline helps students to understand it better. ” This point of view sets the stage for a friendly and engaging textbook that is sure to appeal to students who are curious about the underlying mathematics behind single-variable calculus.

What madehosseini-givs-photo-1-2 you decide to write the book?    Teaching is my favorite mathematical activity, and I consider writing books as some kind of teaching. This has a simple reason: When you teach at a class, you are working with a limited number of students, but when you write a book, you have the opportunity to train a large number of students, some of whom may never meet you.

When I was asked to teach the foundations of mathematical analysis for the first time, I thought of the ways I could make the material accessible to my students. Mathematical analysis is one of the first courses in which students deal with abstract ideas seriously, and it is therefore absolutely essential to hamstext-25-covelp students in finding some intuition. When I was thinking about the abstract parts of the course, I noticed that some parts are not of an abstract flavor, and they aim instead to complete the students’ calculus-based knowledge theoretically. This was against what I heard previously about undergraduate mathematical analysis, namely, its description as generalized calculus.

For this reason, I first tried to talk about the essence of any issue I was teaching. After I used this approach successfully several times in my classes, I tried to popularize it by presenting it within a book. In writing the book I did my best not to present the material in the usual definition-example-theorem style of mathematics books. I did this by spending more time on the interpretation of results and talking about the essence of the issues.

How did you decide on the format and style of the book?    The format and style of the book was determined by the essence of undergraduate mathematical analysis, that is, what it has to do to the calculus-based knowledge. In fact, since analysis generalizes some aspects of calculus to wider frameworks and completes some others theoretically, I decided to present the material in two parts. These parts, which concentrate on the completion and abstraction of our calculus-based knowledge, respectively, allow students to go from concrete arguments to abstract ones. For example, Chapter 3 of the book presents some important aspects of the metric space theory within the classical space $\mathbb{R}$ equipped with the Euclidean metric. Most of the concepts and results of this chapter are then generalized to the abstract context of metric spaces in the second part of the book.

One reason I considered this style of presentation was to help students to understand which concepts and results are generalizable to the abstract setting and which ones are not. This approach helps students to understand the way abstract theories are developed.

What did you focus on the most when writing?  What was the most challenging aspect?  What came easily?   My main focus was on the clarity of exposition. The most challenging aspect of this work was to develop mathematically rigorous ideas within an expository framework. A further challenge was to present enough material with sufficient interpretations and justifications in a book of reasonable size. All that said about my challenges, I should say that the writing itself was very easy for me. More precisely, although I was concerned with the choice of material and its volume, I have never had difficulty with how to write something. I think writing is my best ability and I enjoy writing expository texts.

What was the writing process like?   I wrote more than one half of the book within the summer vacations of 2014 and 2015, when I had enough time for both writing and recreation. The remaining parts of the book were written when I was busy with my classes, and I sometimes had to write on weekends.

Generally speaking, I write whenever I can. I think writing is like playing a musical instrument, and one is able to write an influential text when he/she is mentally and physically at a good situation. For this reason I have never had a daily schedule for writing. Sometimes I even write on midnights. This is because on midnights there are no disturbing sounds and thoughts. Sometimes I stop writing one chapter to start or continue some other. This happens when I feel that working on some argument is easier than some other in a particular situation. Of course, I never work on more than two chapters simultaneously. Also, to remain focused and motivated, I never stop writing for more than one week.

What were the positives and negatives of the experience?  Did anything about the experience surprise you?   I think that writing a book for the AMS cannot involve any negative aspects. It is a great opportunity which has many positive aspects. One important positive point of publishing with the AMS is that you work with a society of mathematicians. This is very helpful, because they are able to evaluate your book idea quickly. Moreover, authors receive unfailing support from the AMS personnel. They are all strongly committed to work with authors and to help them effectively. I was really surprised when I found that professor Gerald Folland is the chair of the editorial committee of the AMSTEXT. I always admired him as a great author, and I learned measure theory and harmonic analysis from his excellent books. I have taught measure theory several times using his Real Analysis book.

Did you have a special place where you liked to write?   How did you stay motivated and focused?   I write in both my university office and my home. More generally, I can write in any quiet place where I have access to a pen and enough sheets of paper. Of course, access to appropriate books and an internet connection is sometimes necessary for me to write. When you sign a contract with a great publisher like the AMS, motivation and focus come automatically to your assistance!

Did time pressure or other responsibilities help or hurt your writing?   Deadlines allow us to work more efficiently. I always consider deadlines for my projects, even if I am not asked to do so. No matter a deadline is proposed to me or it is considered by myself, I do my best to finish my task on or before that date.

What advice would you give to new authors?   Writing books is a nice experience in which one is able to help students worldwide by making some parts of mathematics accessible to them. It is also a great opportunity for those who wish to share their teaching plans and approaches with other instructors. So, if you think you have hot ideas for book writing, please try to work hard on your ideas and help the mathematics community by writing influential books!

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Open Math Notes: the Road in Between

What process of writing works for you?   There are two opposite approaches to writing, which I associate with Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen, and the AMS is now providing a third with the help of its new website Open Math Notes.

The first traditional method is to wait until the entirety of what you want to write fills you, and then to write it in one fell swoop (I have heard that Jane Eyre was written in one night in final form).  This goes along with the beautiful idea (due, I believe, to Jean-Pierre Serre) that it is best to write an article fresh from start to finish enough times so that version n equals version n+1, that being the sign that the paper is ready to submit.   For some people, it seems, it is possible, after some preliminary unseen process, to hold a large and complex idea in the mind and set it down in words in one go.

The second traditional approach is to whittle.  Somewhere I read that Jane Austen explained her writing in this way, though I cannot find the reference:  first write a draft and then carefully rework it detail by detail until it takes a perfect shape.  Perhaps this is like sculpting wood as opposed to painting with ink on rice paper.  Karen Vogtmann has made the lovely quote: first you write it down, then you write it up.

AMS is now in the process of launching a new website called Open Math Notes which facilitates a third way to write a book, appropriate in this age of sharing and collaboration. Authors are invited to submit their lecture notes and other mathematical works in progress to make them available for free download.   The author is still in charge, but readers can weigh in and make suggestions, from general comments on content and structure to specific comments on arguments and exposition.   The website provides a browseable and searchable collection of Notes, which are all freely downloadable for use in teaching and research.

Open Math Notes was officially launched in the beginning of January at the Joint Math Meetings in Atlanta.

Our featured book of the day is inspired more by the recent season of family and giving than by the topic of this blog post.   Enjoy!

Featured Book of the Day

51dclvuqskl-_sx356_bo1204203200_ I Have a Photographic Memory, by Paul R. Halmos

A great book for this time of year.  Reading the book is like looking at a family photo album from the 60s through 80s (if your relatives and close friends happened to include 600 mathematicians!)  The photographs exude warm friendships and collegiality, and the captions are both informative and wonderfully witty.

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Author Interview: Dale Rolfsen

Dale Rolfsen is an expert in low-dimensional topology and knot theory, and is co-author of the AMS books Ordering Braids (with Dehornoy, Dynnikov and Wiest), and Ordered Groups and Topology (with Clay).   His seminal work Knots and Links helped to popularize the study of low-dimensional topology in the 1970s and continues to be a standard reference today.


Knots and Links, in the AMS Chelsea Series

getfileattachmentWhat made you decide to write the book? Was there a gap in the literature you were trying to fill? Did you use existing notes from teaching?
It was Mike Spivak who encouraged me to write Knots and Links. We had met at the IAS, where we became friends. That was the late 1960’s. Mike had established Publish or Perish, Inc. and encouraged me to write a book and publish with him if the muse ever struck me. A few years later I taught a graduate course on knot theory at UBC, where I was a young professor. It was based partly on notes from a course I had taken as a graduate student myself in Madison, Wisconsin, taught by Joe Martin. I also referred to several books in teaching that course, especially the Crowell and Fox classic, Introduction to Knot Theory. While in Princeton, I also had the pleasure of meeting Ralph Fox and frequently attended his weekly seminar, which further kindled my interest in the subject.
Regarding a gap in the literature… It was more a gap in my knowledge, and a bit my allergy to abstract algebra which was more severe than it is now. I was particularly mystified by the Alexander polynomial, which was treated quite formally and algebraically in all the sources I knew. How to make sense of a process involving putting dots at certain places near the crossing of a picture of a knot, using that to construct a matrix with polynomial entries, delete one column of the matrix and then take the determinant? It was a mystery to me for years. One day I read Milnor’s beautiful paper Infinite Cyclic Coverings and I had a real epiphany when I realized that the Alexander polynomial was actually describing the homology of a certain (infinite cyclic) covering of the knot’s complement. It was this more geometric understanding that I tried to emphasize in the book. In fact it’s fair to say that was one of the reasons I decided to write a book on knots.

How did you decide on the format and style of the book?
It was written in the ‘70s. Well before TeX. The state of the art at the time in preparing mathematical manuscripts was the IBM Selectric typewriter. It had a removable typing ball, so you could change fonts, type Greek letters, etc. Also, I like to draw, and luckily the subject calls for lots of pictures. So the book has illustrations and text interwoven, which is easier to do with cut and paste techniques than it would have been with LaTeX (even if it had existed at the time). I had a lot of fun drawing, cutting and pasting, sometimes using plastic overlays of cross-hatching, dots, etc.
I find I learn new concepts much more deeply by looking at examples and explicit calculations, rather than the formal, axiomatic approach. My experience as an often struggling student motivated me to introduce and motivate concepts by concrete, and hopefully interesting, examples. For both pedagogical and aesthetic reasons, I tried to emphasize the visual and geometric aspects of ideas and convey some of the excitement I felt toward the subject.

What was the writing process like? Did you write every day on a set schedule, or did you have periods of setting it aside?
gsm-88-colorI started out with a sketchy first draft based on the notes from the course I gave in 1974. But the writing started in earnest when I had a sabbatical in 1975, which I mostly spent on a remote island off the west coast of British Columbia. No phone or electricity but a lot of peace and tranquility. I had a friend on a nearby island where there was electricity, and my rented IBM Selectric was there. So every week or so, I’d take a boat over to visit her and type a couple of pages. I didn’t have a schedule or explicit deadline, though I wanted to finish it before my teaching responsibilities started again. Eventually I heeded Mary-Ellen Rudin’s advice to me, “Don’t try to put everything into that book!”

What did you focus on the most when writing? What was the most challenging aspect? What came easily?
Although no doubt there would be many types of readers of my imagined book, I tried to write to a person a bit like myself as a student – a person who is easily confused, but also keen to see new ideas take shape. Also, it’s actually possible to build a little suspense into a mathematical narrative by hints, examples and questions which are then clarified later by theorems.
Knots are beautiful objects which had inspired some amazing new mathematical ideas – that’s even more true today than when I wrote the book. But to be honest, I don’t really like many aspects of knot theory. My bias is to be more interested in applications of knot theory to understand 3-manifolds, via surgery, branched coverings, etc., than in the program of classifying knots, for example. I was especially excited about surgery when writing the book. Rob Kirby was developing his surgery calculus at the same time. Rob later told me that he was surprised to see that some of his ideas were explored independently in Knots and Links. His work went much deeper, but he considered only integral surgery, whereas the more general rational surgery was developed in the book.
One of my great challenges in writing was that I didn’t have access to a library while on the island, so I did a bad job regarding the history of the subject and attributing names to ideas. I was also, at the time, totally ignorant of the theory of braid groups. Joan Birman’s seminal book Braids, Links and Mapping Class Groups was being written at the same time. But we were unaware of each other’s efforts. Later, Joan and I became, and remain, good friends.

What were the positives and negatives of the experience? Did anything about the experience surprise you?
The positive was that I learned a lot of the subject as I went along. Many of the examples and calculations had to be done from scratch. That was really fun. As I said, my library access was very 1limited. That was often frustrating, but forced me to work mostly independently of the literature. And of course there was no internet or even email back then.

How did you choose a publisher? What was important to you when you made the choice?
I chose Publish or Perish, Inc. for several reasons. Mike Spivak was my friend, a writer I admired, and he was very encouraging about the book. He promised to keep the price reasonable, an important issue with me, since students (and libraries) had to pay, even then, outrageous prices for textbooks, monographs and journals. Also I liked the name – it was so cheeky! I thought of my book as being a bit quirky, too. It seemed a good match.
The book went through several printings with P or P over a couple of decades, but at one point Mike told me that his publishing company was having financial difficulties and he couldn’t afford another printing run after his existing stock ran out. He suggested that I find another publisher, as the book was still selling well. I decided to go with the AMS, rather than a commercial publishing house. Another choice I considered was MSP, which is a non-profit mathematical publisher run by mathematicians. However, they wanted it redone in LaTeX, which was more work than I was prepared to engage in! The AMS edition uses the original format, reproduced photographically, with a few corrections put in. It was a challenge making those corrections – I prepared them in TeX using a font that looks like the dirty old IBM Selectric and then pasted them in. I consider it a great honor to be included in the AMS Chelsea series.

Was your writing influenced by other books? Which ones?
Two great influences on my writing (and thinking) were Edwin Abbot’s Flatland and John Milnor’s Topology from the Differential Viewpoint. I read Flatland as a kid, and that’s what got me thinking about higher dimensions and eventually into studying topology. Also, its mixture of mathematical ideas with humor, and even satire, inspired me to understand mathematics as an adventure that can really be fun. Spivak’s famous calculus book was also a guiding light. I admired the clarity of his writing, and was glad to have such a fine writer as my publisher. My ideal would be to write like Milnor, who manages to get right to the heart of the ideas he’s discussing. As I said, his paper on infinite cyclic coverings was a huge influence. Also his work with Fox, Singularities of 2-spheres in 4-space and cobordism of knots, was particularly appealing. It also hearkened back to my Flatland experience that sometimes an extra dimension clarifies things. For example, adding knots by connected sum is only a semigroup operation in 3-space, but if one considers cobordism classes of knots – a four-dimensional point of view – they form a group, and indeed a very complicated and interesting group which is still an active topic of research.

Did you find ways to get feedback while writing your book or was it a solitary effort?
It was mostly a very solitary effort, though of course I got feedback from my students when I taught the course. However, I did ask various people to look at it after the first draft was written, including Cameron Gordon and Andrew Casson, and of course Mike Spivak. They made some very useful suggestions. Also, my grad student, Jim Bailey, was very helpful in helping me edit the book. Crucially, Jim prepared the knot tables at the end of the book, a huge job. The source of those tables was Conway’s paper An enumeration of knots and links, and some of their algebraic properties which was published in 1970. Jim translated Conway’s notation to pencil drawings of the knots and I hired Ali Roth, his girlfriend at the time, to make the nice pen and ink drawings that appear in the tables. I think I paid Ali two dollars per knot! As I said, tabulation is not my strong suit, so I’m grateful to Jim for taking care of that. I always feel a bit guilty when I hear people refer to the “Rolfsen tables.” They’re not really mine. More accurately they should be called the Conway tables as interpreted by Bailey and drawn by Roth.

Did you have a special place where you liked to write? How did you stay motivated and focused?
My special place was a little cabin on the island. I had a little table right next to a wood stove on one side anklcd a window on the other. Perhaps I stayed focused because there wasn’t much else to do there in the winter, other than the eternal problem of collecting firewood dry enough to burn. I was not well-prepared! Being in an isolated place without much distraction helped me concentrate and devote daydreams to issues concerning the book, rather than other responsibilities.

Did time pressure or other responsibilities help or hurt your writing?
Let me turn that around. I think that my writing hurt my other responsibilities. As I recall, after the book came out I found it difficult to get down to research on new things for a couple of years. Perhaps I was just a bit exhausted.

What kind of feedback did you get after the book came out?
I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from people who used the book when they were students, and still do now and then. That’s really gratifying to me, as I was specifically writing with the student audience in mind. But I’ve also gotten some negative feedback. For example, a book review in the AMS Bulletin criticized the scanty “kudology” in the book. That criticism is completely valid, my scholarship was pretty low-level.getfileattachment-1
Other feedback was the discovery by Kenneth Perko that two of the knots in the table, which were listed as distinct, are really the same knot. They’re now known as the “Perko pair.” Ken had been a student of Fox and later practiced law in New York for many years. I met him only recently, and we have a sort of correspondence. Recently Perko told me that I could have saved two bucks if only I had known! There were also some errors in some of the link polynomials in the P or P edition, pointed out to me by Nathan Dunfield, who checked them all by computer. They’re fixed in the AMS edition.

What advice would you give to new authors?
Have fun with your writing!

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