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Ian the Joat: Life on B Ark

Ian N. Stewart, professor of mathematics UK’s Warwick University, UK, and author of the bestselling "Does God Play Dice?", writes science fiction stories about a character named Billy the Joat. Stewart, who lists 1,433 entries under 26 categories on his 48 page single-spaced c.v., is himself a Joat - a Jack Of All Trades. Douglas Page caught up with Stewart to find out what drives one of the world’s most popular and prolific mathematicians.

by Douglas Page, ©  1999

Ian Stewart is riled. The bureaucrats have driven him from the lectern.

Until recently, the celebrated mathematician taught two 30-lecture courses every year and worked with a platoon of graduate students. Now, because of stifling British bureaucracy, he no longer teaches classes.

"Ten years ago most academics I knew loved the job, and now most of them would get out tomorrow if they could find suitable work elsewhere. That's sad," he laments.

"The British government has got it into its head that in order to ensure 'quality' in teaching and research, it is necessary to make everybody involved fill in vast quantities of pointless paperwork. The result of this huge time-wasting activity is, of course, a drop in the quality of research and teaching. I feel as if I'm living in Golgafrincham B-Ark".

In the United States this bureaucratic dead-lifting is called the Revenge of the C Students. The phenomenon is endemic on Golgafrincham B-Ark, a fictional starship in Douglas Adams’ popular "Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy".

When the planet of Golgafrincham was menaced by disaster, its authorities divided the population into three categories, then built three huge starships to evacuate the planet: A-Ark for original thinkers, Nobel prizewinners, concert pianists, etc; B-Ark for media executives, telephone sanitizers, politicians, etc; and C-Ark for plumbers, bricklayers, carpenters and computer programmers. B-Ark departed first. Oddly enough, the menace didn’t materialize, Arks A and C never sailed, and Golgafrincham was subsequently devastated by a disease transmitted by unsanitized telephones.

"What makes it worse is that all we need is the conviction to say 'No'," Stewart says. "Bureaucrats always back down if you fight them."

It’s not that he objects to representatives of the public passing judgement on what he’s doing with their money, he just wants them to do so without getting in the way. "It was a general feeling of frustration at this kind of bureaucracy that pushed me into getting rid of all undergraduate teaching duties," he says plaintively. "I've got more important things to do than justify my existence to mindless pen-pushers."

While he doesn’t miss meddling administrators, Stewart does miss the interaction with bright young minds and the way they forced him to understand the material well, pushing him against his own limits.

"I know Ian is an inspiration to the young and no doubt has stimulated interest in mathematics in the same way Martin Gardner and others have done," said Clifford Pickover, member of IBM’s research staff and ‘Brain-Boggler’ columnist for Discover Magazine. "His popular book ‘Another Fine Math You've Got Me Into’ stimulated me to explore mathematical curves called curlicues and, as a result, publish papers and book chapters on the subject. His chapter on Knight's Tours provided a wealth of material for a book I am writing on Magic Squares.

"It's amazing how he manages to juggle so many balls at once. He's an active mathematics researcher; he has a monthly column in magazines; and through it all he has maintained a humble kindness, always willing and gracious to help others."

Stewart, who was presented the 1995 Michael Faraday Medal by the Royal Society for contributions to the public understanding of science, likes the fact that much of science is still wide open, still not properly understood, which is why books like John Horgan’s "The End of Science" bewilder him. "How a Scientific American editor can have misunderstood his own magazine so badly that he seriously thinks that science is pretty much wrapped up, I simply cannot comprehend," says Stewart.

"John Horgan doesn't count areas that aren’t understood as science, because they're not finished, and they may be wrong," Stewart contends. "But all that leaves as 'science' is the stuff that is finished. No wonder he can argue that 'science' in that sense has come to an end. He doesn't know what science is. Science, John dear, has barely got started."

Just Getting Started

It might be said that Stewart, 53, is himself just getting started. Most days he begins with an hour at the local gym, then a drive to his University of Warwick office, where he deals with bags of mail, advises four doctoral students and meets with visiting mathematicians. "I currently have visitors working with me from Portugal, China, Brazil and Canada."

His popular media endeavors claim much of his time. The Faraday Medal secured the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, five hours of BBC televison with an average audience of 1.3 million. Some days he can be found at Coventry Station, connecting to London, for discussions with the BBC,

cable/satellite channels, the Science Museum or recording sessions for the 189 radio or 49 television programs he has written.

If he’s not in his office or attending a London meeting, Stewart is likely to be abroad at a science conference, university or research institute. In the past two years he has visited Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Slovenia, Japan, Houston, Minneapolis, Santa Fe, College Park and Portland, almost always accompanied by his wife and business partner, Avril, a retired ophthalmic nurse, who arranges all trips. Stewart has given the invited address on 274 occasions.

When not dealing with agents, producers, or editors (he writes a monthly column for Scientific American and contributes regularly to New Scientist), Stewart pursues his research.

"I'm always working on math research," says Stewart, who sometimes carries a small, broken spring in his pocket as a reminder. "This spring is amazing. It looks like it was designed by Salvador Dali. One of my research interests is the spring-making process. I have, to my surprise, become a consultant to the UK's wire and spring industries, and we're just completing a project to develop intelligent computer control of spring coiling machines. We ended up using fuzzy logic, the rigorous math of half-truths. It works like a charm."

In his more abstract ivory tower, Stewart develops techniques for understanding pattern formation in physical and

biological systems. Two central interests currently are legged locomotion in animals, and the formation of new species during evolution. "More generally," he says, "I'm heavily into 'complex systems' where lots of entities interact to produce emergent

patterns. For example, a student here named Keith Still invented a brilliant system for modeling crowd flow. He's even set up a company to do it commercially for architects and sports stadiums. Most of it was done before we met, but I've been helping him write it up for a Ph.D. and I've got hooked."

Unexpected cross-connections between different areas of human thought fuel Stewart’s creative engine, such as one branch of math showing up in another, or the biology of the lobster eye causing a revolution in astronomy.

The Lobster's Eye

"The lobster's eye sits at the end of a long stalk," says Stewart. "It focuses light by reflection off mirrors at grazing angles, not with a lens. An astronomer read the biological paper on the lobster eye and realized this is just what was needed for x-ray telescopes, for which lenses don't work."

Twenty years later, NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, scheduled for launch July 1999, uses the lobster-eye design.

"Imagine if the original paper had been the subject of a grant proposal and the answer to 'Why are you looking at the lobster eye?' was 'To revolutionize astronomy in 20 years'," Stewart ruminates. "This kind of connection convinces me that the current structure for supporting scientific research is incapable of backing anything truly original or imaginative. It goes for guaranteed successes, some of which may have merit, but most of which are boring and predictable."

Less predictable are the lunches Stewart favors at a local pub with friend Jack Cohen, a biologist, co-author and fellow science fiction fan, where they discuss Everything.

The Stewart-Cohen writing team is beginning a new book - a science fiction novel, tentatively titled "Wheelers", a near-future first contact story. They just finished another book, "The Science of Discworld", co-authored with Terry Pratchett, one of the UK's bestselling authors.

Stewart is one of a select group of scientists able to distill the arcane world of mathematics into something a wider audience can not only digest, but find delicious.

"There are only five or six of us in the entire English-speaking world who are professional mathematicians, with research agendas, who devote considerable time and effort to raising the public awareness of mathematics," says Keith Devlin, dean of the School of Science at Saint Mary's College of California and author of 23 books on mathematics, several of which are aimed at the general reader.

"As one of that group, I know first hand how difficult it is. Of Ian's many books for the general reader, my favorite is Nature's Numbers, in which he manages to convey the essence of mathematics without explicit mention of a single number, formula, or equation."

Following lunch, Stewart can often be found at one of the 89 seminars or colloquia in which he has participated.

At home, Stewart relaxes in the evening sometimes by sealing himself in his study with an amplifier, earphones and a Japanese reissue Stratocaster electric guitar.

"As a Cambridge University undergraduate I was lead guitarist in a 1960's rock group. I'm not rock star material, but I could have ended up as a support musician if I hadn't been so bloody competent at math."

It is Cambridge we can thank that Stewart is a mathematician and not a physicist. "At high school my main problem was choosing between math and physics," he says. "But before I could decide I was offered a place to study math at Cambridge University, and that took the decision from me because that’s where I wanted to go."

When there’s time in the evening, he reads thrillers, popular science, or science fiction.

"I have a habit of leaving three or four books open, face down on tables, and working my way randomly through each," he says. One he’s reading now is Paul Davies’ "The Fifth Miracle", a new look at the origins of life. "I don’t agree with everything in it — I never do, not even with my own books six months later — but it makes me think."

Others books filleted around the house are Stephen Baxter’s "Moonseed", a novel about rock-eating moon-dust, and Robin Wayne Bayley’s "Swords Against the Shadowland", a novel from the swords-and-sorcery sub-genre of science-fiction’s fantasy fringe. Stewart’s favorite books include Douglas Hofstadter’s "Gödel, Escher, Bach", which he calls the "ultimate in anti-reductionist thinking"; D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s 1917 "On Growth and Form" ("Thompson is the ultimate maverick guru."); John Barth’s "Giles Goat-Boy"; and "The Mote in God’s Eye", by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.

Serious Maverick

Writing, however, is Stewart’s abiding passion. One of his heroes, French mathematician Henri Poincarè (1854-1912), an intuitive researcher, also wrote bestselling popular science books. "He did mathematical research like a virtuoso plays the violin," says Stewart. "He was imaginative, original, distinctly eccentric and seriously maverick."

There is a little Poincarè in Stewart.

In 29 years Stewart has produced 134 papers, 26 textbooks, 238 expository articles, 68 Scientific American columns, 49 Nature ‘News and Views’, as well as 57 popular computer books, two science-fiction books and 10 science-fiction short stories.

"I have a couple of popular science book ideas up my sleeve, where they're staying -- this is a competitive business," he teases. Right now, besides landing himself an FRS (Fellow of the Royal Society), the UK's top scientific recognition, his dream is to get a book on the non-fiction bestseller list and another on the fiction list the same week.

"I'd like to win the Rhone-Poulenc Science Book Prize. I was short-listed in 1994 for ‘Nature's Numbers’ and I'd like to finish the job. There's no Nobel Prize in math, and I'm too old, and simply not good enough, for the Fields Medal. Mathematicians are realists, we know exactly where we are in the intellectual pecking-order."

It’s not that he’s overlooked often. In the past six months he’s picked up an honorary degree, signed contract for a science-fiction novel, published a short story in the UK sci-fi magazine Interzone and was guest of honor at a science-fiction convention.

Then there’s the possibility of that peculiarly British honor, a knighthood. Sometimes he hears the summons: 'Arise, Sir Ian.' The real question is, he says, if offered one, would he accept? "I'm no great fan of the royal family, or of royalty as a concept - they’re a useless bunch of freeloaders - but I suspect I'd rationalize that away".

There’s more broadcast media work in his future. He’s been asked to present a three-part televison series on fractals, which may be filmed in IMAX format. There's also an imminent radio series, expanding the one weekly radio item he already does.

The pace of his life permits little regret, although he does wish he had spent more time with his two sons when they were small. "Regrets are for people who've run out of challenges that they're willing to tackle, or people who prefer to dwell in an imaginary past," he says. "I prefer to look to the future."

Stewart likes the way his friend Jack Cohen puts it, that unless you fail at 10 percent of what you try to achieve, you're not really trying.

"I don't know if an American audience brought up on success as the only criterion understands this," Stewart says. "The point is that the easy way to succeed is to limit yourself to goals you know you can achieve. The goals worth tackling are the ones you're not sure you're up to. Sometimes you find out you're not. You can learn from that, but there's no point in harboring regrets."

One question intrigues Stewart above most others: Does the universe really reduce to a single set of rules, a 'Theory of Everything', as many scientists suspect? He says he would be delighted if we found such a set of laws. However, he questions whether the human mind, with its evolutionary limitations and narrow viewpoint is capable of grasping how something as huge as the universe actually works.

Besides, he says, "I think it's naive to think that one simple set of rules, however conceptually sophisticated, is going to cover everything."

One thing he is absolutely sure of, even if we discover a Theory of Everything, it will not solve everything. "Every mathematician is well aware that being able to state the problem correctly is not the same as knowing the answer. You don't understand economics by modeling the quantum wave function of a billion human beings with money in their hands. You have to structure the consequences of the ToE on very different levels from the original laws. This is almost certainly computationally intractable -- indeed it definitely is for very simple systems, such as toy trains. So it's ridiculous to think that being able to state the computational problem for some system in ToE language implies you'll understand that system."

Stewart sees toy trains as an analog of Gödel's undecidability theorem in number theory, or Turing's proof of undecidability of the Halting Problem for computers. "Build any layout you like with rails and various kinds of points, with one station, and one train. Can you predict, without running the train, whether it will eventually get to the station? The answer is no such prediction method can exist."

Attempting to predict where Stewart’s panoramic talent may appear next is similarly futile. Ian the Joat, member of 14 professional societies, means to take up acrylics. "When I get a spare moment."

-end-

Comments? Questions? Corrections? Assignments? douglaspage@earthlink.net
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