Review of Mathematics and Culture IV and Mathematics and Culture V, both edited by Michele Emmer
When I received these two volumes in the mail, I had not seen the previous three volumes of the series. I had not even seen Leon Harkleroad's MAA review of Mathematics and Culture I. Therefore I had no idea what to expect and this excited me immensely. Two yellow volumes, I felt with a joyful anticipation, could contain so much! Now that I had my time with the two volumes in review here, I must report that my enthusiasm has now been replaced by a vague disappointment.
Indeed these two volumes contain much: many different threads of thought, many colorful pictures and illustrations, and many diverse voices. In volume IV, the reader may choose among pieces about the Kabbalah, comic strips, marine ecosystems, and M. C. Escher. Meteorology, AIDS, the city of Venice, and Jackson Pollock are some of the highlighted figures and themes of volume V. In volume IV, there is ample material about various films and plays that have mathematician characters (Enigma on Alan Turing, A Beautiful Mind on John Nash, Partition on Ramanujan, Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, David Auburn's Proof and the movie Pi ). in volume V, there is a collection of essays about mathematics and architecture; focusing on Alhambra or topology depending on the interest of the particular contributor. There is even an article on how math and fashion are affiliated, (though I must admit I was not able to perceive the alleged connections. I was never a fashionista though, so others may be luckier).
The series collects together the proceedings of an annual conference on Mathematics and Culture held in Italy. The contributors of each volume come from diverse backgrounds. Springer's own website summarizes the contributors as ranging from "cinema and theatre directors to musicians, architects, historians, physicians, graphic designers and writers." The collection of essays itself is almost as eclectic. There are poems (Volume IV), biographical notes and pieces intended to pay homage to celebrity figures, mathematical (Ennio De Giorgi — Volume IV, H. S. M. Coxeter — Volume V) and otherwise (Armando Pizzinato — Volume V), historical pieces (war time mathematics and operations research — Volume IV), comics (Volume IV), and so on.
However, there is one crucial piece missing: a preface or an introduction by the editor that connects the many threads all together. Now, Michele Emmer, the editor, has a brief (almost cryptic) introduction in each of the volumes and they are well written. Both humor and elegance of his style are distinctly visible in these pieces, even after translation (which seems to bother me much less than it did my fellow reviewer Leon Harkleroad). But nowhere in these introductory pieces can we find an attempt at bringing together the many separate threads in the volumes.
A conference proceedings volume, if it is to be read and appreciated by an audience which is not limited to the conference participants, would benefit from an introductory piece that connects together the many ideas and themes that are in the collection. Without such a connecting piece, the distinct pieces in these two volumes look a bit too mismatched, as if somebody just put together essays that were of interest to him for some reason, and the readers are supposed to guess at what brings them all together. We do not even really know about the conference! In the volumes themselves, there is no explicit mention of a conference series, and the reader needs to play detective to figure out that Mathematics and Culture IV is the proceedings of a conference held in 2004, and Mathematics and Culture V corresponds to the next conference in the series, held in 2005.
A point perhaps worth mentioning: a few contributors who find it amusing that they are talking to mathematicians after having somewhat traumatic earlier experiences with mathematics make note of this. One should perhaps realize that it is not only a cliché, but an unfortunate reality: many non-mathematicians have unpleasant memories about mathematics. In such an environment, the editor and the contributors of this project must be sincerely appreciated; they are doing their best to help bridge the gap between us (the mathematically literate) and them (the unwashed masses).
Overall, I found these two volumes interesting to peruse, though I cannot heartily recommend readers to hurry up and add these two volumes to their personal wish lists. There are, however, some very interesting pieces on some themes, and these will be of interest and use to those who wish to read about those particular themes. For this purpose, the books should be available at mathematical public libraries. Each individual will then have to check the table of contents to see if there is anything of interest in that particular volume, and one's answer to this inquiry will certainly vary from time to time.
Gizem Karaali is assistant professor of mathematics at Pomona College.