Welcoming a New Book Into the World

by admin on April 27, 2022

What I did during the pandemic.

One of the best things about being a writer is the moment when you first hold a book in your hands that has your name on the cover. I think that it may be similar to becoming a parent. You spend months and months anticipating something — and when that “something” finally arrives, it’s so tiny compared to the amount of work you put into it! Also, specifically, it’s a little bit like becoming a father, because the actual nitty gritty (putting the ink onto the paper, binding and trimming it) is done by other people and the process is kind of hidden from me. All I get to see is the final result.

Yesterday I got the chance to hold a new “baby” for the eleventh time. If you’ve lost track, here are their names: What’s Happening in the Mathematical Sciences, volumes 6-12; The Book of Why; The Universe in Zero Words; Visualizing Geology; and The Big Splat, or How Our Moon Came to Be. The new arrival is Volume 12 of the What’s Happening series, which is published by the American Mathematical Society. You can order it from the AMS or through Barnes and Noble. Strangely, it does not show up yet on the Amazon website. I guess Jeff Bezos is asleep at the wheel.

I’ll probably always think of this one as my “pandemic book.” I started working on it officially on October 1, 2020, and for the next twelve months it was almost the only thing that I worked on. A large fraction of the book, three out of eight chapters, is devoted to the way that mathematicians responded to the pandemic. The chapters progress roughly from large scale to small scale. The first is about epidemiological models in the general population (don’t call them “forecasts”). The second talks about what happens when you have subpopulations with different characteristics — say, college students or prisoners or vaccinated people. When is it safe to open up a college? Why is it impossible to contain an epidemic if you have a massive incarcerated population? Finally, the third chapter talks about COVID-19 within the human body. How does the immune system work and why does it not work in people with severe cases? What are some targets in the virus itself that we can use to develop anti-COVID drugs? Many of these questions seem biological, but every one of them involves mathematical models.

When the COVID epidemic began, I initially had great zeal to write articles about it, but that zeal waned fast for two reasons. One was that the epidemic itself was such a depressing experience, as the lockdowns took away human contact and made every day similar to every other one. The second was that information about COVID was changing so fast, so something that seemed exciting and important today might be wrong, debunked, forgotten in a month or two. It was difficult for me to see the lasting value in the articles I was writing.

What’s Happening gave me a chance to step back and recalibrate. What can I say about this epidemic that might have permanent value? And What’s Happening also freed me from the pressure to produce something “newsy.” I was able to spend a month or two interviewing researchers in depth and understanding the intricacies of their models, which was not easy. The three COVID chapters were basically finished by the end of March last year. I was worried that they, like my initial forays into writing about the epidemic, might be outdated by the time the book finally came out (a year later!). But when I look at those chapters now, I think they held up remarkably well. Partly that is because of the honesty that mathematics imposes. If the model is mathematically correct and consistent, it will continue to mean something a month or a year from now. The only thing that might invalidate it is that we might find some of the assumptions that went into the model were wrong — but that’s not a mathematical error. In any case, it means we have learned something, and that is the way that science is supposed to progress.

So if you’re sick of reading politicized takes on the pandemic, take a look at these three chapters and learn about some pandemic science stories that you probably never heard before.

The best thing about the other five chapters of What’s Happening is that they are not about the pandemic! Life went on, even during the pandemic, and math did, too. Four of the chapters are about various topics in pure math, which are by turns fun and abstruse and sometimes both. The other chapter is about the mathematics of climate change. As in the chapters about the pandemic, the challenge was to say something new and interesting about a subject that has so much written about it in the popular media that has little value or consequence. Here again, mathematics is my guide. If the math is good, then there is surely something that we can learn from it.

So now, when somebody asks me what I did during the pandemic, I finally have something to show them!

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Larry L. Smith April 30, 2022 at 7:58 am



Richard Robinson April 30, 2022 at 10:25 am

My copy is now ordered!


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