**Math-Frolic Interview #34**
** "***The main message of the series is
that there is a lot more to mathematics than formulas and learning by rote—even
a lot more than the stringency of proof and rigor usually associated with
mathematics. Mathematics has
interpretive sides with endless possibilities.
By now this kind of literature has veteran practitioners easily
recognized by the public but also many talented newcomers. It is a new genre, completely ignored in
educational settings... Mathematics is an extraordinarily diverse phenomenon molded by the human
mind but anchored outside the mind, in a realm both abstract and concrete, at
the same time. That is not easy to
comprehend and to master if we are restricting the learning of mathematics to
the use of conventional mathematical symbols, to notations that most people
have trouble remembering, and to rigid manipulations of those symbols and
notations. Mathematics is a tool of the
mind more versatile than most of its practitioners allow—and its interpretive
potential is certainly beyond the image it has in the public perception or in our
schools. I hope ***The Best Writing on Mathematics** series illustrates this idea." -- Mircea Pitici

If you're familiar with the annual "**Best Writing on Mathematics**" series than you likely know the name "Mircea Pitici" (the editor) -- if you're NOT familiar with the series, then where the heck have ya been for the last 6 years!??
First I'll say that I think this year's volume is the best one yet (probably next weekend I'll have some sort of blurb or review up). Second, I'll note that it was quite surprising to learn of Dr. Pitici's predicament and history, in addition to some of the background of this yearly anthology. He is seeking full-time employment (perhaps in mathematics teaching), so do read his expansive answers below, not only to learn more about his much-heralded anthology, but also about him:

**·** Mircea's books are here: http://www.amazon.com/Mircea-Pitici/e/B00J23W84M
**·** and he tweets at: @MPitici
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**1)
Tell us a little about the background that brought you to a PhD. in mathematics
and to being editor of a yearly math anthology. And when you're not working on
your ***Best Writing on Mathematics *series (BWM) how do you spend most
of your professional time?

Since early secondary school I liked mathematics and I was
good at it (problems solving, problems posing, weekly postings on the
high-school bulletin boards, national competitions, awards, and all that) but I
always read with interest beyond mathematics.
I went on to study mathematics at the University of Bucharest, in
Romania, and I graduated during the political turmoil of the early 1990s. I even published a book in Romania, on
non-mathematical topics. After coming to
the United States I tried to switch to other areas (humanities, business,
science studies) but nothing worked. Difficult
times followed. I hit the bottom in a homeless
shelter, for five agonizing months of harsh winter. I could solve differential equations and teach
multivariable calculus but I was penniless, jobless, homeless, and eating from
the pantry, utterly destitute in the richest country on earth, where
mathematical instruction is supposedly needed, valued, and rewarded! My first attempt to start *The* *Best Writing on
Mathematics* series failed when one of my two bags of belongings was stolen
from me in the shelter; the materials for the book were in that bag.

My PhD is in mathematics education; recently I attempted to
start another one in mathematics but I failed even to be considered for
admission. I failed in most endeavors I
tried. You ask about my professional
time; to me that sounds like a misunderstanding of my condition. Since I came to the United States I only held
temporary positions and odd jobs; I never had a real, full-time, well-paid job,
despite doing well my duties in whatever I was allowed to do. Currently
I am unemployed, going to the library, taking care of my teenage daughter when
she is with me, and shuttling between New York and North Carolina to visit my
wife and toddler son. After finishing
the PhD I tried hard to find a job but again I failed, so far. I am brimming with projects and ideas but I
have to put them on hold, in order to focus on survival.

**2) This year's ***Best
Writing on Mathematics 2015* is the 6th in the series you started.
First of all, CONGRATULATIONS! How did that whole series begin... was Princeton
University Press looking for someone to do such a volume or was it your idea
and you went looking for a publisher to take it on? And if it was your idea,
how hard a sell was it to find a publisher?

For a few years after I left the
homeless shelter I wrote to various commercial publishers, explaining that I
want to edit a series like this, but nobody replied—until Steven Strogatz heard
me out, contacted Vickie Kearn at Princeton [*side-note: I previously interviewed Ms. Kearn at ***MathTango** HERE], and told her that a graduate
student at Cornell seems to have an interesting idea. That was it—what did not work in five years clicked
in a few minutes! The rest is history,
with some hard-to-believe details, which I leave aside, for another occasion. Vickie immediately related to my thoughts
about the project and she remains instrumental in the making of the series. Now I feel that failing to find a publisher for
several years was worth it, because I met the right partner for the enterprise;
I am grateful for the trust Vickie and her colleagues put in me, to do this
task. When the idea of such a series
crossed my mind for the first time I searched the bookstores and the libraries,
convinced that such books existed; but I could not find them. I recall Vickie saying, during our first telephone
conversation, that she was surprised that nobody has already done this series. I was surprised too and somehow incredulous
that I was about to succeed in something.
In hindsight it is clear that the idea was viable but before we made it
happen I encountered only silence or casual dismissal.

This accomplishment, together with many plans in which I
failed or I never got a chance to start, made me appreciate the role of good
luck and bad luck in our lives. I tried
many things and failed in most. When I
think of those few in which I succeeded they turn out to have one important
feature in common: I met people who trusted me to do the work. I value serendipity a lot more than I did when
I came to the United States. I came to
this country very naive and I paid an enormous price, over and over again; I am
not yet fully cured.

**3) Can you say a little about how ***BWM* may have changed (if at all) over
the years? This year's volume, in particular, is heavier-than-usual on
recreational math... was that a deliberate decision on your part, or did it
just evolve that way?

I did the first volume (2010) quickly, in just over two
months, pulling all-nighters in the library; it had a slightly different structure
than the subsequent volumes. Starting
with the second (2011) we settled on a template and on certain routines/schedules/processes
that work quite smoothly (with occasional bumps on the road, to keep us on our
toes). This is a fast-paced series;
there isn’t much room for delay and second guessing. For the final selection of texts included in
each book we take guidance from several professional mathematicians who grade
each of about 60-70 pieces I initially propose for consideration; we also have
to consider constraints related to length, copyright, and diversity of
topics/authors. Inevitably the final
selection is slightly tilted, each year, toward certain themes; this happens
despite my contrary tendency to reach a selection as varied as possible,
ideally unbiased, illustrating as many different perspectives on mathematics as
the recent literature allows.

Changes do occur, gradually.
For instance, at some point I added a long list of also-runs,
supplemented later by a list of special journal issues. The last two volumes contain sections with
color figures. Also, the introduction to
the current volume comes with an online version copiously enriched by a section
on internet resources (read it here: http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/s10558.pdf).

**4) How about the future of ***BWM*; any foreseeable changes? Specifically,
do you see a time when, like most other 'Best Writing In..." series on the
market, each yearly edition might be edited by a different person, or do you
hope to stay on as long as possible as editor?
In the next volume the ‘notable writings’ section will come
with two additional lists, one mentioning notable interviews with mathematical
people (I will list your blog of course!) and another mentioning notable book
reviews. When Vickie and I first
discussed this project we agreed to limit the selection to published articles,
and not to consider interviews and book reviews. Yet this series has become a reference source
of sorts, so I think it useful to give the reader some direction in finding
materials in these two important categories; it requires only marginal added effort
on my part. I will not provide an
exhaustive list of reviews (that’s impossible) but I will signal some that are
truly notable, for going far in the discussion of a book.

You should probably address the second part of the question
to Vickie! Actually, I heard this
question several times since I started the series and I will answer it frankly. For whatever it is worth, with its good
qualities and its faults, the series undoubtedly reflects my vision—even though
other people opine along the way, as I described. This can be traced to the initial, broad
selection of pieces, which I propose. If
someone else was in charge, they would come up with a totally different book
than I do, perhaps even non-intersecting with the content we put out. Yet the constancy of one editor gives unity
to the series as a whole, it makes it cohesive, and perhaps it builds a stable
core readership. I will do this task as
long as conditions allow me. And, if
someone else will do it, I will still do one for myself! I just like to look in all sorts of places, some
well-known to mathematicians but some quite unusual or rarely checked out by them,
to see what people have to say about mathematics. I am curious. My sense is that I want to come up with a book
I like to read; if I succeed in doing that, others will like it too.

**5) Approximately how much time do
you spend each week reading math for possible inclusion in the volume? And how
much help do you get making the final selections for the volume? Or, if you
don't have specific helpers, do you receive a lot of feedback and suggestions
from mathematicians/readers about pieces to consider?**

I keep no roster of how much time I spend on doing these
books. To me it is similar to breathing,
almost effortless. I think about the
next volume every day but the effective phases are irregular. Most days I don’t find anything interesting
to consider or very little, so I do nothing consequential for the project. But at other times I might spend full
consecutive days on it, in a frenzy of activity, if circumstances permit. I have a very complicated, fragmented, and
demanding personal life; I must adapt my work to the non-professional duties I
have. I wish I had a more stable
professional trajectory and my family lived together (not spread over hundreds
of miles), such that I can be more productive—but that state of affairs still
eludes me.

Usually in the middle of December I have 60-70 pieces,
chosen from several hundred, which I propose as candidates for the next
volume. This collection goes to 3-4 professional mathematicians chosen by Vickie. The readers (who almost always remain
anonymous to me) grade the pieces and send back reports, sometimes with highly
entertaining comments. Then we put
everything together and make judgments based on the opinions of the referees,
the multiple constraints we face (length of texts and copyright matters most
prominently), and several criteria I hold dear for the making of the series:
diversity of perspectives, diversity of mathematical branches, diversity of
publications, diversity of authors represented (well-established personalities but
also newcomers), non-overlapping content, balance of non-technical and slightly
more technical articles, etc. We want these
volumes to be accessible to the general public but also interesting to the
professionals; when it comes to mathematics, that is catering to very different
categories of readers at the same time; I hope we are succeeding, despite the
challenge.

For the broad scope I give to this series an excellent academic
library is indispensable; I commend once again the services I enjoyed from the
Cornell University Library—although I lost important privileges lately, after I
finished my doctorate. Our series is
more scholarly than any other of the similar *Best*… series on the market.
I am comfortable with that; mathematics is special; we should not dilute
the content in order to give the readers a false impression of facility.

I receive a lot of feedback, most of it informal, most of it good, pleasing,
cheery, even exalted. The more formal
feedback comes in book reviews. It is
fascinating and reassuring to compare the reviews. Almost every aspect criticized by some reviewer
is praised by other reviewers. Where
some people find faults, others see virtue.
Every time I read an acute, insightful, penetrating, normative, theoretically
helpful criticism—I wrote to the reviewer, thanking for his/her observations
and asking for concrete suggestions of pieces that would rectify, in the next
volume, the criticism they express in the review. I never received replies to these invitations! The point I am making is that regardless of
what *would *be desirable to include in
the volumes of this series, we are circumscribed by the material extant out
there. I cannot include a certain type
of article if I encounter nothing of that sort or if we cannot overcome
republishing hurdles.

Indeed I regularly receive suggestions from people,
including their own productions—but not many.
I always welcome suggestions and I try to remain blind to people’s
eventual self-interest or self-promotion. I start from the premise that people are well intended.
I consider everything that comes to my
attention, regardless of the manner in which it reaches me. The non-technical literature on mathematics
is vast and it is impossible for me to survey all of it; if people come forward
to point out something new to me, I am grateful. A few of the pieces brought to my attention
by their authors rightly made it into volumes; most of them did not.

**6) Other than just
reviewing/picking-and-choosing from so much available material, what is the
hardest thing about putting out such an anthology every year?**

This question is the easiest to answer. By far the hardest thing is to leave out of
the anthology excellent pieces which I know deserve to be included. I find texts I am sure will be in the book,
only to put them aside in the final phase of selection, either because all the
referees demur or because of the constraints I mentioned above. To alleviate this aspect I include at the end
of the book a list of notable writings (which, by the way, takes me a lot more
time than the pieces that eventually are reprinted in the anthology). I encourage readers to look over those lists
and to find the articles and the books that might interest them. Some of the entries mentioned there are unlikely
to be found by readers on their own. I
hope I offer quick and reliable guidance amidst a huge information overload
concerning mathematics. This feature of
the series is my deliberate attempt to give the readers not only a selection of
outstanding writings about mathematics but also a research tool rich in
references they can pursue, now or later.

**7)
Anything else you wish to say about this year's edition, not covered above?**

Oh yes, I have a lot more to say, but
I will limit myself to a few additional things.

I see ‘this year’s edition’ as a
convention imposed by our inevitable subservience to calendar strictures. Each volume should be considered together
with the others, integral part of the series.
It seems to me that the reviewers always ignore this aspect. To rectify somehow the situation, we are
going to make available a combined index of the pieces published so far in the
series.

The main message of the series is
that there is a lot more to mathematics than formulas and learning by rote—even
a lot more than the stringency of proof and rigor usually associated with
mathematics. Mathematics has
interpretive sides with endless possibilities.
By now this kind of literature has veteran practitioners easily
recognized by the public but also many talented newcomers. It is a new genre, completely ignored in
educational settings. Among other goals,
I want *The Best Writing on Mathematics*
series to help educators and perhaps policy makers see that it is worth broadening
students’ understanding of mathematics.
Mathematics is an extraordinarily diverse phenomenon molded by the human
mind but anchored outside the mind, in a realm both abstract and concrete, at
the same time. That is not easy to
comprehend and to master if we are restricting the learning of mathematics to
the use of conventional mathematical symbols, to notations that most people
have trouble remembering, and to rigid manipulations of those symbols and
notations. Mathematics is a tool of the
mind more versatile than most of its practitioners allow—and its interpretive
potential is certainly beyond the image it has in the public perception or in our
schools. I hope *The Best Writing on Mathematics* series illustrates this idea and I
wish I could explore it further with students.
Instead, I am still searching for my first real job! My long-term unemployment suggests that
editing the series has not helped me much in my professional career. Despite an excellent teaching record as a
graduate student and before that, I am still looking for employment. Teaching mathematics is my best ability but
it slowly fades into the past, as I cannot find an employer interested in my
teaching. I feel this is a rebuke of my
view of mathematics as a broadly encompassing subject worth learning in its
myriad connections with history, culture, science, and technology. I see mathematics as a bulwark against
dogmatic thinking—but that conception runs into a dogmatic view of mathematics
that still prevails in America (with many exceptions, I hasten to say).

I am not going to end on a
pessimistic note or with a diatribe!
Editing *The Best Writing on
Mathematics* series gives me satisfaction in itself, not necessarily as a
professional accomplishment. For
instance I am happy to see that it is possible to bring together in the same
book constituencies that are not comfortable going together, such as
mathematicians and mathematics educators, purists and mavericks, entrepreneurs
and artists. Hopefully this series will
gradually contribute to a change in the broad perception of mathematics as a social,
cultural, historical, and intellectual phenomenon with huge stakes in the
working of contemporary humanity.

Finally, I will tell you the true story
of “The Best” from the title. When we
started the series I worried that this “best” will incite some people,
especially doubters whose writing is not included and scoff at our claim of
“the best…” We considered whether “The
Princeton Anthology…” may be more modest, less trenchant. Vickie took the dilemma to the Princeton
board; then she called me to say: “We are Princeton. We will go with ‘The Best…’!”

Thanks for asking!
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Thanks, Mircea for filling us in on so much about both your BWM project and your own life! It's our great fortune that you got introduced to Vickie Kearn and Princeton University Press. Good luck in future endeavors.
If somehow you've missed **The Best Writing on Mathematics** in prior years, there's no place better to start than with 'the latest edition':