Amherst Magazine

What They Are Reading

Assistant Professor of Mathematics Tanya Leise, part of a nine-person team to receive a $1 million biomathematics grant from the National Science Foundation this year, writes about the books on her figurative bedside table.

ast summer I read a mix of science fiction and “pop math,” starting with the fantastic trilogy by Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay), which was just as riveting as her series The Underland Chronicles. These novels are aimed at young adults, but young and old alike will find them addictive and hard to put down.

I occasionally read a book from the series by Connie Willis about historians traveling back in time to experience history as part of their research—a neat twist on historical fiction. This summer I read Blackout and All Clear, which together constitute a two-volume novel about a group of World War II historians who end up trapped in England during the London blitz when their portals back to the future refuse to operate.

My father-in-law gave me a copy of The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen, an intense novel about a dysfunctional family with three grown children making a new set of mistakes as they try to make corrections to their lives after growing up in an emotionally repressive Midwestern household with a depressed father. While the plot is fragmented, with no clear direction, the characters are well-developed and emerge as fully human.

I turned then to some less emotionally intense fare, A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper and A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market, by the mathematician John Allen Paulos. These books are quick and enjoyable and discuss as much psychology as math. For example, Paulos describes the cognitive phenomena of psychological availability and anchoring effects and their consequences on the decisions we make. Although the events he uses to illustrate his points occurred, for the most part, in the 1990s, the discussion is as relevant today.

I am currently halfway through Virtual Light, by William Gibson, which depicts a technologically advanced future with no middle class. Instead, the population is divided between a lower class trying to eke out a living on the edges, including a group of homeless people that takes over San Francisco’s Bay Bridge and builds up a shantytown reminiscent of the medieval London Bridge, and an upper class surrounded by luxury and super-technology, including “virtual light” glasses that directly feed information into the brain. This is the first book of a trilogy consisting also of Idoru (which I accidentally read first) and All Tomorrow’s Parties.

My husband, my 10-year-old daughter and I have been enjoying Professor Stewart’s Hoard of Mathematical Treasures, by Ian Stewart, which is chock full of mathematical jokes, magic tricks, brainteasers and games. For instance, consider the Buttered Cat Paradox: given that cats always land on their feet and toast always lands buttered-side-down, what happens when a cat with buttered toast attached to its back (buttered side outward from the cat, of course) is dropped from a height?

Photo by Kate Berry ’12