Aczel, Amir D. 1950-

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Aczel, Amir D. 1950-

PERSONAL:

Born November 6, 1950, in Carmel, Israel; U.S. citizen; son of E.L. (a ship's captain) and Miriam (a homemaker) Aczel; married October 4, 1984; wife's name Debra; children: Miriam. Education: University of California at Berkeley, A.B., 1975, M.S., 1976; University of Oregon, Ph.D., 1982. Hobbies and other interests: Skiing.

ADDRESSES:

Home—Medway, MA. E-mail—[email protected]

CAREER:

University of Alaska, associate professor of mathematics, 1982-88; Bentley College, Waltham, MA, 1988-2006, began as associate professor, became professor of mathematics. Frequent guest on radio and television programs.

MEMBER:

American Mathematical Society, American Statistical Association, Delta Sigma Pi.

AWARDS, HONORS:

Excellence in teaching award, University of Oregon, 1980; professor of the year award, Bentley College, 1997; fellow, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

WRITINGS:

Complete Business Statistics, Irwin (Homewood, IL), 1989, 6th edition, with Jayavel Sounderpandian, McGraw Hill (Boston, MA) 2006.

How to Beat the IRS at Its Own Game: Strategies to Avoid—and Survive—an Audit, Four Walls Eight Windows (New York, NY), 1994, new edition published as How to Beat the IRS at Its Own Game: Strategies to Avoid—and Fight—an Audit, 1995.

Statistics: Concepts and Applications, Irwin (Chicago, IL), 1995.

Fermat's Last Theorem: Unlocking the Secret of an Ancient Mathematical Problem, Four Walls Eight Windows (New York, NY), 1996.

Probability 1: Why There Must Be Intelligent Life in the Universe, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1998.

God's Equation: Einstein, Relativity, and the Expanding Universe, Four Walls Eight Windows (New York, NY), 1999.

The Mystery of the Aleph: Mathematics, the Kabbalah, and the Search for Infinity, Four Walls Eight Windows (New York, NY), 2000.

The Riddle of the Compass, Harcourt (New York, NY), 2001.

Entanglement: The Greatest Mystery in Physics, Four Walls Eight Windows (New York, NY), 2002.

Pendulum: Leon Foucault and the Triumph of Science, Atria (New York, NY), 2003.

Chance: A Guide to Gambling, Love, the Stock Market, and Just about Everything Else, Thunder's Mouth Press (New York, NY), 2004, published as Chance, MJF Books/Fine Communications (New York, NY), 2006.

Descartes' Secret Notebook: A True Tale of Mathematics, Mysticism, and the Quest to Understand the Universe, Broadway Books (New York, NY), 2005.

The Artist and the Mathematician: The Story of Nicolas Bourbaki, the Genius Mathematician Who Never Existed, Thunder's Mouth Press (New York, NY), 2006.

SIDELIGHTS:

Amir D. Aczel is a mathematician who writes about math, physics, and astronomy for general readers. His books blend historical anecdote, character studies, and hard science to explain such concepts as probability theory, Fermat's Last Theorem, and Einstein's cosmological constant, to those who are curious—if unskilled—in higher math. "For one practiced in dealing with numbers, Amir Aczel certainly has a way with words," observed Jeanette Brown in Astronomy. Brown added that Aczel's books present "a beautiful marriage of mathematics and prose." In Discover magazine, Jeffrey Winters wrote: "At a time when so many popular physics books avoid equations and fudge mathematical explanations, Aczel wants to delve deep into the mathematics. He believes—as Einstein did—it is in fact the underlying mathematics that makes the universe elegant."

Aczel was best known as a theoretical statistician until the mid-1990s, when he published Fermat's Last Theorem: Unlocking the Secret of an Ancient Mathematical Problem, a study of breakthrough work done on a previously unsolved 300-year-old theorem. Aczel once told CA: "I write to express myself. I am interested in great nonfiction that tells a true story in an exciting, engaging way. I work late into the night, almost every night. I compose entire chapters in my head, then write them down with very few revisions. I use no book outline, but rather let the story tell itself in the most natural way. If a story doesn't flow, it is not worth telling. Fermat's Last Theorem had many stories in it, at different levels: the great problem, unsolved for 300 years, the life stories of the mathematicians who contributed to the final proof, and the intrigue—the human drama."

The success of that work led to one of Aczel's best-known books, Probability 1: Why There Must Be Intelligent Life in the Universe. The book's topic and title were originally proposed by Dr. Carl Sagan, but Sagan died before he could begin the project. Aczel took up the challenge, and his book expands upon the theories proposed by astronomer Frank Drake in 1961. "In essence," wrote New York Times Book Review correspondent John Durant, "Probability 1 is a review of Drake's equation in the light of scientific evidence. Aczel argues convincingly that the number of planets suitable for life is extremely large." He bolsters his arguments with information about recent discoveries of planets orbiting other stars, the latest investigations into the possibility of life on Mars and on at least one of Jupiter's moons, and with the facts of biology and evolution on Earth. His final argument, however, is a purely mathematical one: given the size of the universe, the number of stars and galaxies, the probability of intelligent extraterrestrial life is one-hundred percent.

Critics were mixed in their assessment of Probability 1. Durant explained: "Statistics are extremely powerful and important, and Aczel is a very clear and capable exponent of them. But statistics cannot substitute for empirical knowledge about the way the universe behaves." Jeanette Brown, on the other hand, concluded: "Before reading Aczel's book you may find it easy to shrug off his conclusions. After you've finished Probability 1, you may find it harder to do so."

In God's Equation: Einstein, Relativity, and the Expanding Universe, Aczel demonstrates that the cosmological constant, discovered and then discounted by Albert Einstein, has once again become an important aspect of the general theory of the behavior of the universe. The book not only discusses the physics behind the expanding universe, but also details Einstein's genius and his working methods during his most prolific period as a physicist/astronomer. "God's Equation is not just a retelling of breakthroughs in early twentieth century physics," commented Winters. "Aczel makes it a study of the intersection of mathematics and the physical world." Booklist correspondent Bryce Christensen called God's Equation "one of the most exciting scientific detective stories ever told," and "a marvelous distillation of epoch-making science."

With The Mystery of the Aleph: Mathematics, the Kabbalah, and the Search for Infinity, Aczel turns to the history of the concept of infinity for inspiration, looking at early concepts and ultimately focusing on the life of the nineteenth-century mathematician Georg Cantor, who picked the aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, as the symbol for infinity. So involved was Cantor in his search for a mathematical rendering of infinity that he ultimately lost his mind. (Experts now think he may have been bipolar.) Writing in Booklist, Bryce Christensen noted that Aczel "penetrates to the human drama behind the formulas" in this "engrossing story of a man and an idea." Likewise, a reviewer for Publishers Weekly found The Mystery of the Aleph a "compact and fascinating work of mathematical popularization." Richard Bernstein, writing in the New York Times, had a more mixed assessment of the same work. Noting the difficulty of explaining complex mathematics to the lay reader, Bernstein called Aczel's book "highly enjoyable and frustrating at the same time." However, Laurence Marschall, in a review for Sciences, had no such reservations, commenting that Aczel "serves as an expert guide on Cantor's voyage to the far reaches of abstraction."

Aczel's 2001 work, The Riddle of the Compass, was easier on readers, containing no mathematics at all. Instead, Aczel presents a history of the instrument that made ocean exploration possible, tracing conflicting stories of the origin of the compass to China and to Italy, where one Flavio Gioia supposedly invented it around 1300. Gilbert Taylor, writing in Booklist, found this a "flowing account," as well as a "delightful, wide-ranging ramble." Further praise came from the New York Times reviewer Bernstein, who felt Aczel "shows his usual accessibility as he explores the origins and significance of the world's most important navigational tool."

From science history, Aczel once again returned to the more demanding realms of advanced mathematics and quantum theory with Entanglement: The Greatest Mystery in Physics, an exposition and history of what is known in physics as entanglement theory. The theory states that particles can become entangled with one another, so that, even if separated by great distance, there is an instantaneous change in both if one of the partners experiences a change. Albert Einstein once called this notion "spooky," and since the 1960s it has engendered major research into how such a theory could be used for such things as teleportation. Aczel examines the history of the theory as well as the lives of various scientists connected with it in this "accessible entry into this concept of quantum physics," as a reviewer for Publishers Weekly termed the book.

Aczel presents more science history in Pendulum: Leon Foucault and the Triumph of Science, the story of the French scientist who proved that the Earth rotated on its axis by setting up a pendulum in the cellar of his mother's house. Foucault, who was a dropout from medical school and did not have a university degree, had to battle the French scientific establishment in order for his controversial findings to finally gain acceptance. Aczel provides "a terrific page-turner that captures the essence of the personalities of the story while clearly expounding on the scientific principles," according to Library Journal critic Denise Hamilton. The author portrays Parisian society of the Second Empire as well as the science behind Foucault's discovery. Gilbert Taylor, writing in Booklist, suggested that Pendulum "will keep science buffs thoroughly entertained," while a Kirkus Reviews critic found the same book a "good summary of an important era in science and one of its underrated stars."

Statistics and probability are at the heart of Aczel's 2004 book Chance: A Guide to Gambling, Love, the Stock Market, and Just about Everything Else, in which the author examines the theory of probability and also offers illustrative "amusing whimsies," as Taylor noted in Booklist. Aczel gives advice—based on probability—from picking the right mate to beating the odds at Las Vegas. Taylor concluded that Chance was one more title in Aczel's "winning track record of popularizing science." Further praise came from a Kirkus Reviews critic who termed the book "an entertaining introduction to one of the most universally relevant and most widely misunderstood branches of mathematics." Similarly, a Publishers Weekly reviewer concluded that Aczel's "light touch generally makes probability come alive."

Aczel turned again to science history with his 2005 title Descartes' Secret Notebook: A True Tale of Mathematics, Mysticism, and the Quest to Understand the Universe, a "splendid study about the French philosopher and mathematician," according to a Publishers Weekly contributor. Aczel here focuses on a secret notebook Rene Descartes, the founder of modern geometry, kept, written in code. Aczel's examination of the fragments remaining from that notebook provides a tale that is "part historical sketch, part biography and part detective story," as the Publishers Weekly reviewer further noted. In the telling, Aczel identifies a mystical and occult side to Descartes, a member of the Rosicrucians, and how this mysticism influenced Descartes' mathematical as well as philosophical work. Taylor, writing in Booklist, concluded that "Aczel's appeal … will draw fans to his new work." Further adventures in mathematics are offered in the 2006 title The Artist and the Mathematician: The Story of Nicolas Bourbaki, the Genius Mathematician Who Never Lived. Aczel tells the story of Bourbaki, a fictional persona created by a group of French mathematicians in the 1920s. These mathematicians published over forty volumes detailing what became known in the United States as "new math." Aczel explains the mathematics and provides character sketches for some of the better known members of the group, such as Andre Well and Alexandre Grothendieck. A critic for Kirkus Reviews found this a "fascinating topic, despite the author's sometimes plodding approach." Similar criticism came from a Publishers Weekly reviewer who thought the "diffuse" narrative "strains to pull its disparate parts into a satisfactory whole." A higher assessment of the book came from Library Journal contributor Ian Gordon, who stated: "Aczel paints a clear picture of the Bourbaki movement and how it has influenced the way mathematics should be discussed and learned."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

American Scientist, May-June, 2003, Wim van Dam, review of Entanglement: The Greatest Mystery in Physics, p. 270.

Astronomy, November, 1998, Jeanette Brown, review of Probability 1: Why There Must Be Intelligent Life in the Universe, p. 106; March, 2000, review of God's Equation: Einstein, Relativity, and the Expanding Universe, p. 104.

Booklist, September 1, 1998, Gilbert Taylor, review of Probability 1, p. 44; September 15, 1999, Bryce Christensen, review of God's Equation, p. 206; December 1, 1999, Donna Seaman, review of God's Equation, p. 676; October 1, 2000, Bryce Christensen, review of The Mystery of the Aleph: Mathematics, the Kabbalah, and the Search for Infinity, p. 296; July, 2001, Gilbert Taylor, review of The Riddle of the Compass: The Invention That Changed the World, p. 1972; July, 2003, Gilbert Taylor, review of Pendulum: Leon Foucault and the Triumph of Science, p. 1852; November 1, 2004, Gilbert Taylor, review of Chance: A Guide to Gambling, Love, the Stock Market, and Just about Everything Else, p. 450; October 1, 2005, Gilbert Taylor, review of Descartes' Secret Notebook: A True Tale of Mathematics, Mysticism, and the Quest to Understand the Universe, p. 11.

Discover, November, 1999, Jeffrey Winters, review of God's Equation, p. 124; November, 2001, Maia Weinstock, review of The Riddle of the Compass, p. 81; November, 2002, Laurence Marschall, review of Entanglement, p. 75; April, 2005, Alex Stone, review of Chance, p. 80.

Economist, July 17, 1999, "New Light on Planets," p. 9.

Harper's, October, 2001, Guy Davenport, review of The Riddle of the Compass, p. 83.

Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 2003, review of Pendulum, p. 841; September 15, 2004, review of Chance, p. 897; August 1, 2006, review of The Artist and the Mathematician: The Story of Nicolas Bourbaki, the Genius Mathematician Who Never Existed, p. 761.

Library Journal, August, 1999, Harold D. Shane, review of God's Equation, p. 131; July, 2001, James Olson, review of The Riddle of the Compass, p. 117; September 15, 2002, Jack W. Weigel, review of Entanglement, p. 87; August, 2003, Denise Hamilton, review of Pendulum, p. 124; October 15, 2004, Jack W. Weigel, review of Chance, p. 84; October 1, 2006, Ian Gordon, review of The Artist and the Mathematician, p. 101.

Mercator's World, January-February, 2002, Richard Pflederer, review of The Riddle of the Compass, p. 56.

Motorboating, February, 2002, review of The Riddle of the Compass, p. 32.

New York Times, November 15, 2000, Richard Bernstein, review of The Mystery of the Aleph, p. E8; September 5, 2001, Richard Bernstein, review of The Riddle of the Compass, p. E6.

New York Times Book Review, November 15, 1998, John Durant, review of Probability 1, p. 69; August 1, 2003, Patricia Cohen, review of Pendulum; November 7, 2004, Elissa Schappel, "What Are the Odds?" review of Chance, p. 17.

Publishers Weekly, August 17, 1998, review of Probability 1, p. 60; September 13, 1999, review of God's Equation, p. 67; August 21, 2000, review of The Mystery of the Aleph, p. 61; September 30, 2002, review of Entanglement, p. 61; May 19, 2003, review of Pendulum, p. 60; September 13, 2004, review of Chance, p. 66; August 29, 2005, review of Descartes' Secret Notebook, p. 47; August 14, 2006, review of The Artist and the Mathematician, p. 192.

School Library Journal, June, 2001, Sheila Shoup, review of Mystery of the Aleph, p. 184; January, 2002, Robert Burnham, review of The Riddle of the Compass, p. 171.

Science News, May 25, 2002, review of The Riddle of the Compass, p. 335; November 2, 2002, review of Entanglement, p. 287; August 30, 2003, review of Pendulum, p. 143; October 16, 2004, review of Chance, p. 255; November 5, 2005, review of Descartes' Secret Notebook, p. 303; October 21, 2006, review of The Artist and the Mathematician, p. 271.

Sciences, November, 2000, Laurence Marschall, review of The Mystery of the Aleph, p. 43.

Spectator, September 3, 2005, Stuart Wheeler, review of Chance, p. 32.

ONLINE

Danny Yee's Book Reviews,http://dannyreviews.com/ (November 30, 2000), review of The Mystery of the Aleph.

Random House Web site,http://www.randomhouse.com/ (April 16, 2007), "Amir D. Aczel."