Last week I received a double dose of good news. In my last post I mentioned the very positive comments about my book in the New York Times “Numberplay” blog. (Also see the followup post that came out yesterday.)
In the same week, my book was also reviewed in SIAM News (published by SIAM, the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics). This review, written by James Case, actually covers three different books:
- The Universe in Zero Words: The Story of Mathematics as Told Through Equations, by yours truly.
- In Pursuit of the Unknown: 17 Equations that Changed the World, by Ian Stewart.
- The Great Equations: Breakthroughs in Science from Pythagoras to Heisenberg, by Robert Crease.
“If three quite different books by quite different authors with quite similar titles can be said to constitute a new literary genre — call it the ‘great equations’ genre — it may be time for a birth announcement,” Case writes.
This brings up an awkward topic that I’ve previously avoided mentioning on this site: the competition. First of all, I knew about Crease’s book, which was published in 2010, while I was still working on mine. I didn’t consider it to be a really direct competitor, though. The big difference (to me) between our books is that Crease focuses almost entirely on equations used in physics. He has virtually no interest in mathematics as an end in itself (what we call “pure mathematics”) or in mathematics as applied to other subjects.
However, I was extremely dismayed when Ian Stewart’s book was published literally one month before mine. My publisher said not to worry, but how could I not?
First, Ian Stewart is an accomplished and very popular math writer, whose writing I admire and consider a model for my own. After Martin Gardner, he was one of the first people to introduce me to the genre of popular mathematics. How would my book compare to a book written by a master of the subject? Second, there is a huge amount of overlap between our books. Eight of the equations we write about (8 of his 17; 8 of my 24) are the same ones. And he doesn’t have the same blind spots that Crease does.
For example, I was very proud of the fact that I wrote the last chapter of The Universe in Zero Words about the Black-Scholes formula from economics. “Hot dog,” I thought. “I’m going to be the first pop-math writer to discuss Black-Scholes in a book.” Then In Pursuit of the Unknown comes out, and guess what the last chapter is about? The Black-Scholes formula.
So Stewart’s book stole my thunder in a big way. It stole the thunder, the lightning, and most of the rain too. It’s absolutely not his fault; it’s just bad luck that we were both working on the same idea at the same time.
From a literary point of view, however, the simultaneous publication does not matter. If my book is well-researched and well-written it will stand on its own, and no one will care twenty years from now (or even one year from now) whether it was published at the same time as another book on the same topic. And fortunately, that is the point of view Case writes from. He doesn’t care that Stewart is more famous or that his book will sell more copies. He simply compares, without judgement, the topics covered by each book. In the end, he has this to say about them:
“Well written and entertaining, all three books are also replete with interesting details that add to what most mathematicians already know about the equations described and the events chronicled. Generally, Crease seems the most philosophically inclined of the three authors, Stewart has the most to say about applications, and Mackenzie delves most deeply into the historical development of purely mathematical ideas. All three books can be recommended to any reader with even a casual interest in mathematics and/or its history.”
A very fair review, I think. I encourage readers of this website to buy (or at least read) all three. If you only have time or motivation to read one, please choose mine! Why? In jest, I would say that my book gives you 41 percent more equations than Stewart’s, for about the same price. What a bargain!
More seriously, if you buy my book you are supporting a relatively new voice in math writing. If you buy Stewart’s book, you are supporting someone who has already published a lot of books and will publish a lot more. Maybe, arguably, my book has more personality, more freshness and individuality of tone than Stewart’s, precisely because I have not written this type of book several times before. Of course, you are hearing this from someone who is 100 percent biased!
But the good news, as Case says, is this: Whichever book you buy (or read), you can’t really go wrong. So enjoy one, or enjoy them all!