Skip to main content

Richard Elwes – Four Way Interview

Richard Elwes is a writer, teacher and researcher in Mathematics and a visiting fellow at the University of Leeds. Dr Elwes is passionate about the public understanding of maths, which he promotes at talks and on the radio. His more recent book is Maths 1001.
Why maths?
I don’t know anything else!
I have always enjoyed the subject, and the more I have studied, the more I have realised how incredibly deep it goes, and just how much there is to know. At the same time, I am aware of the gulf between how most people see maths (a horrendous mix of tedious equations and incomprehensible jargon), and how I see it, which is as a whole other world, packed full of amazingly cool, interlocking ideas. So, as well as enjoying studying maths myself, I suppose I have a drive to try to close this gap.
Why this book?
There are two answers, both true.
The first is that I don’t think a book like this has ever been attempted before. Of course, there are plenty of excellent books discussing various mathematical topics for a general audience. But I don’t believe any have tried to be as comprehensive as this. It’s ambitious, there’s no doubt about it, and I was excited by the challenge.
At the same time, there seems to be a gap between ‘popular’ books on one hand, which take a completely equation-free, discursive approach to a mathematical subject, and ’technical’ volumes or textbooks on the other, which go fully into all the gory details. My book treads a middle path. I didn’t want to sex things up too much, I wanted the mathematics to speak for itself, and for the book to work as a reference volume. At the same time, some of the material is undoubtedly difficult and unfamiliar, and people need a way in, to understand what fundamental questions are being addressed. I wanted it to be enjoyable to read, and for people genuinely to learn from it. In some ways, I suppose I wanted to write the book that I would like to have read aged 17.
The second answer is… someone offered me money to write it.
What’s next?
I’m pleased to say that I have a couple of projects in the pipeline. In Spring 2011 I have a book called “How to build a brain (and 34 other really interesting uses of mathematics)” coming out, which has been a fun one to write. It covers some of the same areas as Mathematics 1001, but in a much more light-hearted and less technical style. Perhaps you could guess that from the title.
There are other things in the works too… but it is probably still too early to go into details. I can say that I am looking forward to working on them though!
What’s exciting you at the moment?
Maths 1001 is my first book, and it’s just come out. I’m quite excited about that, to be honest!
Otherwise, I find that the internet makes a wonderful blackboard, these days. There are so many people out there talking about maths, from primary school teachers discussing games kids can play to start to enjoy numbers, right up to Fields medallists presenting their latest research. I follow several mathematical and scientific blogs (I’ve got my own too, may I plug it? www.richardelwes.co.uk/blog Thank you!). It is just fun to be a part of that huge conversation.
In terms of mathematics itself, I have been thinking about recent work by the logician Harvey Friedman, which I find very exciting. It’s a sort of sequel to Kurt Gödel’s famous work. I think it will turn out to be important. I am getting quite interested in ideas from logic to do with provability, computability, and randomness, and how they relate. My background is not in exactly this type of logic, but I do find it fascinating.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

The Bastard Legion (SF) - Gavin Smith *****

Science fiction has a long tradition of 'military in space' themes - and usually these books are uninspiring at best and verging on fascist at worst. From a serious SF viewpoint, it seemed that Joe Haldeman's magnificent The Forever War made the likes of Starship Troopers a mocked thing of the past, but sadly Hollywood seems to have rebooted the concept and we now see a lot of military SF on the shelves.

The bad news is that The Bastard Legion could not be classified as anything else - but the good news is that, just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer subverted the vampire genre, The Bastard Legion has so many twists on a straightforward 'marines in space' title that it does a brilliant job of subversion too.

The basic scenario is instantly different. Miska is heading up a mercenary legion, except they're all hardened criminals on a stolen prison ship, taking part because she has stolen the ship and fitted them all with explosive collars. Oh, and helping her train her &…

The Laser Inventor - Theodore Maiman ****

While the memoirs of many scientists are probably best kept for family consumption, there are some breakthroughs where the story is sufficiently engaging that it can be fascinating to get an inside view on what really happened. Although Theodore Maiman's autobiographical book is not a slick, journalist-polished account, it is very effective at highlighting two significant narratives - how Maiman was able to construct the first ever laser, despite having far fewer resources than many of his competitors, and how 'establishment' academic physicists, particularly in the US, tried to minimise his achievement.

On the straight autobiographical side, we get some early background and discover how Maiman combined degrees in electrical engineering and physics to have an unusually strong mix of the practical and the theoretical. Rather than go into academia after his doctorate, he went into industry - which seems to have been responsible for the backlash against his invention, which we…