Opinion 9: Rebuttal to Gina Kolata's review of John Allen Paulos's ``A mathematician reads the newspaper''

By: Doron Zeilberger

Written: Feb. 22, 1996

Like most mathematicians who also occasionally read newspapers, I always enjoyed Gina Kolata's well-written articles on mathematics and mathematicians, first in Science, and later in the New York Times. Hence I was disappointed by the unfair, and untrue, book review that she has written in the March 1996 Notices (pp. [100*Pi]-[sqrt(10)*100]), about John Paulos's masterpiece `A mathematician reads the newspaper'.

Kolata writes in the first paragraph: `And I have often said that the main advantage of having studied mathematics is that it taught me how to think'. I am sorry to say, that mathematics failed, at least in this case. Kolata's review shows that she has completely missed the point of the book. Perhaps because of the title, she expected the book to be a `professional journalism monograph', to be read by reporters like herself. Hence the main thrust of her critique, that this book is not such a book, is a valid statement, but misses completely the message of the book.

Paulos's book is brilliant, both because of its form, burrowing, freely of course, the newspaper format, and because of its content. Most importantly, it is fun to read, and illustrates the vitality of mathematics, and its omnipresence, in such an engaging and gripping way, that appeals both to the lay reader, the scientist or engineer who is not a mathematician, and to professional mathematicians like myself.

I can vouch to the falseness of at least one statement:

`Readers of the Notices will already know all of the mathematics that Paulos presents'.

With all due respect, Gina Kolata is not a typical member of the AMS, so she is not qualified to say what they know or don't know. When I read this book about half a year ago, I learned lots of new math. Even more importantly, it showed stuff that I have already known abstractly, in a new light, and how it interfaces with the mundane everyday life described in newspapers.

Most of the readers of the Notices are also teachers of mathematics. I find Paulos's books a great resource for ideas of how to present in the classroom arcane mathematics in an appealing way, that students can relate to. Only for that reason, the present book should be a must-read and must-buy.

Finally, I also disagree that this book would be over-the-head of the lay reader. Even if he or she would not understand every word, they would get the message of the vitality and ubiquitousness of mathematics.

There are very few professional mathematicians (Barry Cipra, Ian Stewart, and Paulos, to name some) who are able to convey the spirit of mathematics to the general reader, and at the same time enlighten mathematicians. It is unfortunate that the Notices chose an unqualified reviewer like Kolata, who wrote such an unfair and misleading review.

So my recommendation is: BUY TEN COPIES, one for yourself, and the rest to give as birthday presents to all your friends and relatives.

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