Today’s newspaper may be interesting because it reports new information.

Newspapers from decades ago may be interesting for different reasons, not for the explicit content but for the implicit content. What were the contemporary reactions to what’s now well known? What were the readers expected to know and not know? To be impressed by?

But the newspapers in between are not so interesting. They’re not news and they’re not history.

The New York Times has just published their Book of Mathematics, a collection of over 100 math articles written from 1892 to 2010. Most of the articles are toward the 2010 end of the timeline. I found most of the articles to be old news but not old enough to be historically interesting.

However, I’m a professional mathematician, and these articles were written for a popular audience. The intended audience for the original articles, as well as the new compilation, would probably enjoy the book more. On the other hand, these are newspaper articles: lots of text, no color, and few illustrations. People who read popular math books might have less patience for this book.

One of the articles I did enjoy was “The Electronic Digital Computer: How It Started, How It Works and What It Does” from 1967. It’s the longest article in the book at 20 pages, and goes into some depth. Of course parts of it are also quaint.

I also enjoyed “A Soviet Discovery Rocks World of Mathematics” from 1979. It’s jarring now to hear the adjective “Soviet” applied to a mathematical result, but I assume this was not remarkable at the time. The article is about Khachiyan’s discovery of the first polynomial time algorithm for solving linear programming problems. The algorithm was impractical but groundbreaking. It quickly led to new algorithms that were efficient in theory and in practice. The article has a hint of panic between the lines, something like the reaction to Sputnik but to a lesser degree.

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Andrew Gelman wrote a short review of this book on his blog a few days ago. I put off reading his review until I had written my own above. His reaction was similar to mine:

… Fun for the math content and historical/nostalgia value. … I have too much of a technical bent to be the ideal reader for this sort of book, but it seems like an excellent gift for a non-technical reader who nonetheless enjoys math. … My own preference would have been … more old stuff.

Maybe the ideal reader is the technical reader decades from now. 🙂 Compilations like this can make nice time capsules.