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Interviews | March 17, 2014 5 comments
It's hard to believe that 200 years ago, the Pacific Northwest was one of the most remote and isolated regions in the world. In 1810, four years... Continue »
James SteinDescribe your latest project.
My latest book, to be published in Spring 2008 by HarperCollins, is entitled How Math Explains the World. The twentieth century witnessed three eye-opening results in delineating the limitations of what can be accomplished in the physical, mathematical, and social Universe. Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, of which most people have heard, shows that we cannot know everything about the physical Universe if we know where electrons are, we don't know where they're going, and if we know where they're going, we don't know where they are. Godel's Incompleteness Theorem says that in axiom systems of sufficient complexity, there exist statements which can neither be proved nor disproved. Arrow's Theorem shows that there are limits to how well a democracy can function in terms of translating the preferences of individual voters into the preferences of a society.
These results place limits on what we can know, or do, or achieve but instead of proving to be roadblocks, they have actually opened new and surprising avenues. Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and the quantum mechanics of which it is a part has led to most of today's electronic marvels. The difficulty of solving certain mathematical problems ensures the safety of any account that you have protected with passwords. Instant Runoff Voting is being adopted in many communities as a better and cheaper way to hold elections.
Learning the limits of what we can know, or do, or achieve is especially important in a world in which our resources themselves are limited for we cannot afford to chase dreams that simply cannot be realized.
I consider myself extremely lucky that I fell into teaching mathematics as a profession. Math explains a lot about the world, and it's not nearly as complex or abstruse as many people think the actual calculations may be rather involved, but the gist of what it says can be easily understood. I'm inspired to write about this the same way that you are motivated to tell a friend about a good Chinese restaurant you've just discovered.
Describe your favorite childhood teacher and how that teacher influenced you.
Chess or video games?
For the life of me, I cannot see what others see in video games. It's almost as grim as practicing tennis by hitting against the wall, except that doing so improves your game.
What do you do for relaxation?
What was your favorite book as a kid?
What new technology do you think may actually have the potential for making people's lives better?
If you could be reincarnated for one day to live the life of any scientist or writer, who would you choose and why?
What was your best subject in high school? Your worst?
Describe the best museum of science and/or industry you've ever visited and what made it great.
By the end of your life, where do you think humankind will be in terms of new science and technological advancement?
Which country do you believe currently leads the world in science and technology? In ten years?
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James D. Stein is a professor of mathematics at California State University, Long Beach. A graduate of Yale University and the University of California, Berkeley, he lives in Redondo Beach, California.