11: Mathematical Intelligencer

Interview with Marjorie Senechal, Co-Editor-in-Chief, May 2007

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This installment of Periodical Radio is about Mathematical Intelligencer, a quarterly publication about mathematics, mathematicians, and the history and culture of mathematics. This periodical straddles the definition of a journal and a magazine. The glossy cover and 11” by 8 ¼” format give it the physical look of a magazine, and most of the content requires little background in mathematics to read and understand. But like a scholarly journal, most articles cite references, and some include mathematical formulas. I think any reasonably educated person could gain from reading The Mathematical Intelligencer, but some of the articles do require a math background to make much sense of them. And like a scholarly journal, book reviews are an important component.

The Mathematical Intelligencer has been published since 1978 by Springer, a major publisher of scientific books and journals based in Germany. Since its beginning, the journal’s mission has been to foster communication among mathematicians and others interested in mathematics. Interdisciplinary treatments of mathematical topics are encouraged, as are articles about mathematical communities. The editors welcome humor, puzzles, poetry, fiction, and art.

I won’t describe the articles and features in the current issues, because that can be done so much better by my guest today, Dr. Marjorie Senechal. Dr. Senechal shares with Dr. Chandler Davis the job of Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Mathematical Intelligencer. Dr. Senechal is Louise Wolff Kahn Professor in Mathematics and History of Science and Technology at Smith College.

Steve: Dr. Senechal, thank you very much for taking time in your busy schedule for our interview. I very briefly described The Mathematical Intelligencer in my opening, but could you summarize for our listeners what the journal is about?

Dr. Senechal: Well, we think of it as a journal of mathematical culture. Usually when I say that to someone, they’re just stunned at the thought that there is such a thing as mathematical culture, and they can’t imagine what that is. But there is, and it is really a very deep culture; a very rich culture. There’s mathematical history, there are mathematical communities around the world, there are viewpoints about the nature of mathematics, its meaning, its relation to art, its relation to physics and to all kinds of other intellectual endeavors. We also feature lots and lots of book reviews, and puzzles, entertainments, and humor, and we include mathematics-related art and poetry, and fiction, too. So it’s quite diverse, and we think of all that as constituting mathematical culture.

Steve: I see. I wanted to have you talk briefly about each of the departments in the journal.  I’ll name each one individually, and let you describe them.

Dr. Senechal: Okay.

Steve: “Mathematical Entertainments.”

Dr. Senechal: The “Entertainments,” that is a new name for what we used to call “puzzles,” where people would send in problems that required a lot of ingenuity but not the kind of problems that people have worked on for 300 years, but more the kind that anyone with a minimum background could get involved in and probably solve, and yet whose solutions weren’t known. But we realized that is too narrow, so we’ve broadened “Entertainments” to include articles that are just interesting, even though they aren’t necessarily posing problems. For example, we had one recently on phyllotaxis, you know, the relation of the seeds in a sunflower to the Fibonacci series and so forth, which we showed is not in fact the case, it’s not always related to that. So that’s a fairly broad thing. In the current issue, “Entertainments” is on Suduko’s French ancestors, the early forms of this that are not well known to people. Suduko is this very popular mathematical game which really came from France, and we have an article on the early French versions.

Steve: Yes, that was an interesting article. My parents are very into Suduko, and I’m sure they’ll be interested in that article when I show it to them.

Dr. Senechal: Do you have a copy of the current issue?

Steve: Yes, we do. My library, at the College of Saint Rose, the Neil Hellman Library, has been a subscriber of Mathematical Intelligencer since the beginning, since volume one.

Dr. Senechal: Oh, that’s great. You know, we’re just about to celebrate our 30th anniversary.

Steve: That’s right.

Dr. Senechal: It’s a journal that’s continued now for 30 years.

Steve: Under the same title, and with a lot of continuity.

Dr. Senechal: Yes, same title, and we’re now producing with volume 29, and we’re working on volume 30.

Steve: Wonderful. Well, that leads to the next department, “Years ago.”

Dr. Senechal: The “Years Ago” department is a rather eclectic department of historical things. So they range tremendously as to what the topic is, and when it took place, but the main thing that holds these together is that they are about mathematical history. So, for example, in looking at not the current issue but the one before, the “Years Ago” is an article written by a professor at Vassar on airborne weapons’ accuracy, and how mathematicians worked in the Second World War in applied mathematics panels to improve mathematically the accuracy of airborne weapons. This is not the kind of thing we usually run, but it was a very interesting sidelight on war work of various mathematicians who were well known for other things, but not for this.

Steve: I see. Next would be “Mathematically Bent.”

Dr. Senechal: “Mathematically Bent” is a humor column written by a Colin Adams, who is a professor of mathematics at Williams College, and Colin is one of the funniest people around. He writes this himself. Many of the columns have contributions from other people. We have a column editor who then accepts submissions, and reviews them and decides which ones to accept, and so on. Sometimes the column editor writes them himself or herself, but otherwise accepts submissions. But Colin writes these all himself, and they’re just wonderful.

Steve: Is it humor a non-mathematician would get?

Dr. Senechal: I think so, yeah. The thing I love about Colin’s column is that they’re enjoyable on many levels. If you are a mathematician you can get word plays and so forth that might escape someone who isn’t. But if you’re not a mathematician you can still have a wonderful time with these. For example, in a recent issue, there’s one about the mathematical ethicist. He poses pseudo-ethical problems that mathematicians run into, and they’re hilariously funny, and anyone could appreciate those.

Steve: The next is “Mathematical Communities.”

Dr. Senechal: This is a column that features mathematical communities around the world, past and present. It’s often written by people who live in those communities. We’ve had articles from, for example, an Albanian mathematician who was an émigré but went back after the end of communism to see the state of mathematics in Albania. We’ve had many articles on Europe, of course, throughout the ages. We’ve had articles on African mathematics, and we’ve had articles on the Philippines. It’s a very, very broad, wide ranging column. One that’s coming up very soon is going to be an article about the relation between religion and mathematics in 19th and early 20th century Russia.

Steve: Mathematical communities are more than formal organizations or associations of mathematicians.

Dr. Senechal: That’s right. We define a community to be any number of mathematicians greater than one, although I did write an article about one person once for that, because this was a person who was a very unusual and offbeat mathematician who was very strongly supported by the more conventional mathematicians. I felt that reflected on the type of community that we feel we have as mathematicians. But they don’t have to--it does not mean these communities have to be organized in any particular way. Sometimes they are. It really varies a lot.

Steve: The next would be the “Mathematical Tourist.”

Dr. Senechal: “Mathematical Tourist” is a fun column, I think. These are articles about either places that you can visit that famous mathematicians lived, or monuments to them, or particular buildings with interesting mathematically related architecture, or observatories, or sometimes they’re about libraries that have particularly rich collections of historical mathematical works. Again, very varied.

Steve: Then the next would be the “Reviews” section.

Dr. Senechal: The review section is book reviews, and the book reviews section is growing very rapidly. It’s always been large, but it’s growing very rapidly because the number of books about mathematics and mathematicians--books of fiction, books of non-fiction, straight textbooks, strict monographs--the number of these is growing very, very fast. We try to keep up with them and keep abreast of them so that our readers can be aware of which books they should be looking for.

Steve: Are there ever reviews of films or other media?

Dr. Senechal: Yes indeed, yes, certainly there are. We just reviewed an opera in Germany. We reviewed a play in France. We’ve reviewed other things like that.

Steve: I see. The last department was a bit of a surprise to me, “Stamp Corner.”

Dr. Senechal: The “Stamp Corner.” This one, you know to my great surprise, goes back to the very beginning of the Intelligencer. I recently was able to get a copy of the very first issue, which was really volume zero, before volume one, before it actually became a journal. At that time it was more of a broadside printed by Springer Verlag editors just to alert people to various issues, forthcoming books and so forth. Even then, there was not a regular stamp column, but there were stamps featured. The stamp person who does this . . .. I should say that all of these columns really reflect the personalities and the interests of their column editors, and in some cases a column is designed around that editor. In other words, without that editor we probably wouldn’t have that column. For others, the column is one that we try to keep filled all the time, so the editors rotate. But in the case of stamps, it is Robin Wilson in England. I think he’s done it maybe not for thirty years, but for a very long time. Several of the columns have been collected into books, and one of his is called Stamping through Mathematics. I don’t know where he finds these things. They’re all over the world, stamps that have mathematical content. He groups them by theme. His theme now is running through the alphabet, things that start with an N, with an O, with a P. We publish those always on the back page of each issue.

Steve: So it’s a one page department about stamps.

Dr. Senechal: Yes, it’s a one page department. It’s always the same size, and he writes a little commentary. Once in a great while someone submits something to him, and we run those for that issue, but it’s mostly Robin finding these things somehow, somewhere, and they’re wonderfully diverse.

Steve: I’d like to change gears just a little bit now. The instructions for authors for The Mathematical Intelligencer call for submissions to be in LaTeX.

Dr. Senechal: That’s right.

Steve: Could you describe for our listeners what that is, and why it’s used?

Dr. Senechal: Well LaTeX is a typesetting program that allows you to input code for the mathematical symbols very nicely. It’s not of particular use if you’re writing, for example, book reviews. You can use that or you can use Word, it doesn’t make any difference, because there are almost never any equations or mathematical symbols in book reviews, although in some cases of course there are. But LaTeX facilitates equations and symbols so easily and so beautifully that it’s become the industry standard for all mathematical publishing, and I think physics, too, and many other sciences. It’s not a WYSIWIG [what you see is what you get], you don’t see it on the screen, but it’s easy to convert to PDF file, and then you can see what it actually looks like. But the code is easy to learn, and most mathematicians have learned it, because when you write mathematical papers this is what you’re expected to use. The reason that we are asking for it now (if you look back a few issues you’ll see we didn’t), is because we’re planning to also have an online presence. We want to use the capabilities of Springer Verlag, our publisher, for faster turnover and for better printing jobs. Maybe that’s not quite the right way to say it, it’s just for smoother production, let’s say. So we want to move in that direction, and because almost all mathematicians do use this, it’s not too much to ask of them, we think.

Steve: Thank you. Marjorie, how did you become one of the editors-in-chief? How did that come to be?

Dr. Senechal: Well, it came to be that Chandler Davis, who was the editor, asked me to do it. I have loved the Intelligencer all my career, and from time to time did book reviews or some articles for it. Then quite a few years ago, I guess maybe ten years ago, Chandler asked me if I would be the editor of the “Entertainments” column. I said no, I didn’t want to do that, because I’m not a puzzle person, as much as I think they’re fun. I don’t have that enthusiasm for math puzzles that an editor of that column really has to have. But I said I would love to do something, and I thought up the idea of the “Communities” column. That seemed to fit very well, because the Intelligencer had already had articles off and on that fit under that rubric, anyway, so we just made that a column. I began to work on that. I guess I’d done that about eight years, and then Chandler Davis, who had been the editor-in-chief for thirteen years, said he thought it would be a good idea if we were co-editors. I thought that sounded good, too, so I agreed to do it, and we’ve been working together now for several years.

Steve: What do you enjoy most about being co-editor?

Dr. Senechal: Well, I love editing. What I love about editing, partly, is it’s fun to take a piece of writing and see how to help the author find ways to make it better. I love working with the authors. I find in so many ways it’s a natural extension of teaching. I’ve been teaching for many, many years, and I find this very enjoyable. A difference is I don’t see the people I’m working with, they’re all over the world. One thing I meant to point out before is that one of the very special things about The Mathematical Intelligencer is that the audience is international, and so are the contributors. So when we say that it’s a mathematical culture, we mean the international, worldwide mathematical culture. We work very hard to make sure that it doesn’t just speak to, say, a North American audience, but that the articles represent and are of interest the international community. So back to the editing, it’s a great pleasure to work with people from all over the world, and to discuss with them what it is they’re trying to say and to help make these things stronger and better, and also to work with Chandler to shape an issue and to try present a lively balance of things. Also, you know, looking toward the future, of how to make this even a stronger and more widely read journal.

Steve: You mentioned the potential to go online?

Dr. Senechal: Yes.

Steve: Is that part of the future plan?

Dr. Senechal: Yes, it is. It’s taking us a little time to do it. We’ve been planning this for quite a while, and I think it’s going to be moving ahead now.

Steve:  What are the greatest challenges of being an editor?

Dr. Senechal: I think that always the greatest challenges are soliciting really lively and interesting and timely articles that will be read. I’m including in that things like the history and everything else, not just the mathematical articles. But making it lively, interesting, and timely, and of wide interest. Also, I think the other challenge, which is related to that, is to broaden the readership. Thirty years ago the mathematical community was quite small, relatively speaking. Now it’s enormous. I mean, things have changed so much with the advent of the computer and the blurring of distinctions between pure and applied mathematics, and the growth of mathematical biology and so many other areas of applications. The mathematical community is much broader, much more diverse. Vastly more women are now in mathematics. It’s just a different picture. When I go to the mathematics meetings now, it’s a completely different atmosphere than it was thirty years ago. It’s really almost unrecognizable. We want to be in touch with and keep up with the interest of this much broader readership. Also, I really value the contributions and the opinions of friends of mine who are historians, philosophers or others about mathematics, their own reflections on it, their thoughts. We want the Intelligencer to be of interest to this wider community, and also to have them contribute to it. So those are the challenges that I see.

Steve: Very interesting. An editorial in the first official issue, volume one, issue one, of the Intelligencer states that the patron saint of the journal is Leonard Euler. Can you tell us who he was and why he’s held as a model?

Dr. Senechal: Well, it’s great that you found that. That really is a lovely essay. I’m hoping that we’ll reproduce that essay, actually, in our 30th anniversary issue, because I think it’s a wonderful one. But Leonard Euler, he was one of the greatest mathematicians of all time, I think, and most prolific. Euler published and lived to be well into his 80’s. He never stopped doing mathematics, even though he became blind the last ten to twenty years of his life. He’s the most prolific mathematician of all time, and his collected works are still being published. There are maybe twenty or thirty volumes already, and there’s going to be far more. The project goes on and on. There’s a big celebration of his 300th anniversary this year in Basel, where he is from. But the reason the Intelligencer made him the patron saint was not that he was so prolific, and that he was so courageous to continue his mathematics even though blind. It was because he was not afraid to pose questions that he didn’t know the answers to, to make guesses, to publish attempts at solutions, even if he didn’t find them. In other words, he was provocative and challenging, and he stimulated dialogue. This is what we want to do, also. We don’t want this to be the kind of journal where you say, okay, here we’ve solved this problem, theorem, proof, that’s it. We want to make people think, we want to make people discuss, we want to make people argue. We’d rather publish a guess that questions, that says “this is something we want.” We hope people will get involved in and start thinking about it, rather than having everything be all tidied up and so on. That’s why he’s the patron saint, because of his free spirit.

Steve: I see. Dr. Senechal, from the journal, your personal web page, and your publications, it’s very clear that you have a real passion for liberal education and interdisciplinary applications of mathematics.

Dr. Senechal: Um-hum.

Steve: Why are you so keenly interested in the broad contexts within which mathematics is studied?

Dr. Senechal: Well, first of all, I don’t think mathematics can be really understood unless you understand the context. Mathematics is a subject that has many, many roots, and many, many branches. To really understand the ideas of mathematics, you have to see them as they’ve evolved over time, and as they play out in different fields. So I feel that it’s a subject that’s inherently interdisciplinary, even though we think of it, or unfortunately, often teach it as just, “this is math, and it has nothing to do with anything else.” I think it really comes from and applies to and belongs to a much wider culture. Then it’s just my personal bent, I’ve never recognized boundaries between disciplines, it’s just not the way I think. Boundaries are just not there for me.

Steve: How much knowledge of mathematics do you think a person needs to be genuinely liberally educated?

Dr. Senechal: Well, that’s a very good question. I don’t know what you mean, though, by how much. I mean, I wouldn’t want to say you should have calculus or you should have this or you should have that, because I don’t think there’s any one prescribed route into knowing mathematics, and no particular milestones one should have to…

Steve: Well, let me give you some context.

Dr. Senechal: Okay.

Steve: As most colleges are, here at the College of Saint Rose, we’re having an ongoing discussion of the requirements for liberal education for all majors at the college, and of course part of that discussion is the requirements of how much mathematics, how much laboratory science, etc. students must take. Do you have a feeling about, for any college student, how much exposure to mathematics of any sort they should have?

Dr. Senechal: Well, yes, and my views I should say are controversial, so you shouldn’t take me as any kind of patron saint on this. I think there are two things. I think one is that the student should have enough mathematics to understand how to read the newspaper, to understand the roles of quantitative thinking and reasoning, to be able to read graphs, to be able to understand numerical arguments. To be able to essentially make their way in the current world, and I don’t think you can do that without some math background. That’s number one. Then I think it’s really important that every student in liberal arts colleges, and Smith is included, understands that mathematics is one of the great creations of the human mind, a deep and profound aspect of human culture that should be seen in that light.

Steve: Thank you. Where does a periodical like The Intelligencer fit into the overall goals of liberal education?

Dr. Senechal: Well, I think it is something that should be around, and that people should read. I mean, it’s a little bit advanced for the undergraduates, I mean as a whole. Although I think math majors could certainly read with profit almost all the articles. It’s not something that should be in every dorm, necessarily, because it maybe is a little bit too specialized for that. But certainly it should be in math lounges, it should be in the science library, in the math library, it should be available and students should be encouraged to read it. A lot of things in the Intelligencer make wonderful starts for projects that students could be doing in connection with math classes or in connection with mathematics or science or liberal arts classes. We have a rich source of material here that people could use.

Steve: Dr. Senechal, our time is actually almost up. Is there anything you would like to add before we conclude?

Dr. Senechal: No, except that I’m just so pleased that you chose the Intelligencer to focus on this time.

Steve: You’ve been a very interesting guest, thank you very much.

Dr. Senechal: Thank you.