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Tech Q&A

Paul Nahin

Describe your latest project.
I have just finished the writing of a new math/history book for Princeton called Chases and Escapes: The Mathematics of Pursuit and Evasion. It is waiting for final approval by Princeton's Editorial Board. In addition, I have about 80% of another contracted book done for Princeton called Parrondo's Paradox. It is a sequel to my earlier book with Princeton, Duelling Idiots, which appeared in 2000 (and a corrected paperback edition in 2002). Both treat the use of computer-based Monte Carlo codes (written in MATLAB) to get numerical results to probability problems by direct simulation, as opposed to 'solving equations' that may, in fact, be too tough to actually solve.

What inspires you to sit down and write?
I very much enjoy the physical aspect of writing, over and above the creative, intellectual part of writing. The old saying "Writing is something you love having done" has never applied to me. The hunt in the library for journals and books, the many hours of sitting in the university coffee shops scrawling out first drafts by hand in ink, the even more hours spent typing those drafts on my home computer (I type in Scientific Word, which easily lets me embed the most complicated math one can imagine right inside ordinary text), the endless e-mails with my wonderful editor at Princeton (Vickie Kearn), the copy-editing, the reading of typeset proofs (is there anything more beautiful than typeset mathematics?), the indexing... I LOVE IT ALL!

Describe your favorite childhood teacher and how that teacher influenced you.
My high school math teacher, Victor Hassing, had a tremendous influence on me. He really loved math, and wasn't teaching it simply because it was his turn in the barrel that year. Math was by far my favorite subject in high school, and it served me well in my undergraduate and graduate studies in electrical engineering. I kept in touch with Mr. Hassing for many years after graduating from high school in 1958, and he came to my PhD celebration party in 1972 (I worked a few years in the aerospace industry between my 1963 Masters from Caltech and going back to grad school at the University of California at Irvine in 1968). When he died in 1980 it had a very big impact on me — Parrando's Paradox is dedicated to his memory.

What do you do for relaxation?
The "correct" answer, I suppose, is to say that my wife (43 years now, and counting!) and I like to take long walks through the rural New Hampshire countryside that surrounds our home in the little town of Lee (just three miles from the center of the University of New Hampshire campus). And we do. But as much as I like writing and walking/talking with my wife, what I really like to do for relaxation is play (are you shocked?) video games! For some years I was a PC-gamer, but I've recently switched over to the Xbox360. I got tired of my video card, no matter how super-duper it might be when I bought it, being obsolete six months later. I found it enormously amusing to see the surprise on the faces of my students when they realized I knew what they were talking about when computer gaming shop talk would come up in conversations. I have successfully completed all the Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, Thief, Hitman, Max Payne, Half-Life, Sniper Elite, Quake, and Myst games (with only an occasional peek at walkthroughs). I think the game-playing has been good for me. I'm 65 years old as I write, but I think my hand-eye coordination is that of a much younger man. And my six year-old grandson thinks it's very cool that his granddad can survive a running gun battle with the Strogg aliens in Quake 4!

What was your favorite book as a kid?
That's easy — The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. The final passage is, I think, one of the most romantic, moving passages in the English language. It was certainly the inspiration behind one of my earlier science books that I wrote for Springer-Verlag/New York: Time Machines: Time Travel in Physics, Metaphysics, and Science Fiction (2nd edition in 1999).

If you could be reincarnated for one day to live the life of any scientist or writer, who would you choose and why?
Great question! And, in fact, I answered it in my very first book, the biography Oliver Heaviside: The Life, Work, and Times of an Electrical Genius of the Victorian Age (first published in 1988 and reprinted with a new introduction by The Johns Hopkins University Press in 2002). Oliver was a great eccentric, and terribly impoverished, who spent a major portion of his life in a running battle with William Preece (head of the British Post Office and a technical idiot), so one day might be just about all the time I'd want to spend as him. As I wrote in my book's preface, "I would trade almost everything I experience just one day in the Victorian London of 1887. How I would love to hear, from Oliver's own lips, just what he thought of William Preece. I can guess what he would say, in essence, but just imagine how he might put it!" If I could be Oliver myself, of course, then I'd get to say it. Being retired now, what could anybody do about such bad language?

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