Celebrating books, authors, publishers and readers

Today we celebrate World Book and Copyright Day, also known as World Book Day. The day serves as a celebration of books and authors all over the world, and involves activities to “encouraging everyone, and in particular young people, to discover the pleasure of reading and gain a renewed respect for the irreplaceable contributions of those who have furthered the social and cultural progress of humanity.”

In celebration of World Book and Copyright Day, my humble attempt at spine poetry (a wonderfully fun art form that I first heard about from A Little Blog Of Books And Other Stuff). (© All Rights Reserved)
In celebration of World Book and Copyright Day, my humble attempt at spine poetry (a wonderfully fun art form that I first discovered through A Little Blog Of Books And Other Stuff).
(© All Rights Reserved)

In addition to being a tribute to authors, the day also serves to promote publishing and the protection of intellectual property through copyright.

In her message for the Day, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said: “All forms of books make a valuable contribution to education and the dissemination of culture and information. The diversity of books and editorial content is a source of enrichment that we must support through appropriate public policies and protect from uniformity.”

Definitely a day – and a cause – well worth supporting. To quote Charles W. Eliot, “Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counsellors, and the most patient of teachers.”

Remembering Paul Erdős, collaborator, eccentric, lover of numbers

Today we celebrate the birthday of one of the most colourful and eccentric characters in the world of mathematics (a domain not short on eccentrics at the best of times)- the Hungarian Paul Erdős (26 March 1913 – 20 September 1996).

Erdős, a serial collaborator, was one of the most prolific publishers of mathematical papers in history. The volume of his output has been compared with the great Leonhard Euler, but while Euler published more pages (mostly as solo author), Erdős published more articles (more than 1500 in his lifetime), many in collaboration with other mathematicians.

Erdős lived his life on the road, moving regularly from one mathematical collaboration to the next.(© All Rights Reserved)
Erdős lived his life on the road, moving regularly from one mathematical collaboration to the next.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The British mathematician and author Timothy Gowers once wrote an essay entitled “The Two Cultures of Mathematics”, in which he classed mathematicians into two groups – the ‘problem solvers’ and the ‘theory developers’, with the latter often held in higher regard in the history of mathematics. Erdős, however, definitely fell into the former category – he was particularly fond of those problems that appeared simple to understand, yet notoriously difficult to solve. Most of his work focused on number theory, combinatorics, approximation theory, set theory and probability theory. However, thanks in part to his fondness for collaborating with other mathematicians, he also made contributions in completely unrelated fields such as topology.

As mentioned before, Erdős was known to be a bit of an eccentric. He had little interest in earthly possessions, giving most of what he had away to causes he considered worthy. Most of his life fit into a single suitcase, and since he first emigrated from Hungary (moving first to England, and later to America after accepting his first position at Princeton University), he lived a nomadic lifestyle, travelling between different mathematical colleagues and collaborators. It is said that he often arrived without warning, pitching up on a prospective collaborator’s doorstep with the words “My mind is open!”, to indicate his readiness to collaborate. After staying for a few weeks, he would move on to the next destination.

In recognition of his prolific collaborations, Erdős’ friends devised the ‘Erdős number’ – an indicator of a person’s degree of separation from Erdős himself (in terms of mathematical collaboration). Thus Erdős had a number of 0, while his immediate collaborators had an Erdős number of 1, his collaborators’ collaborators had an Erdős number of 2, and so on. Due to the extent of his mathematical collaborations, and the collaborations of these individuals with scientists from other fields, many physicists, engineers, biologists etc also have low Erdős numbers.

Despite the extent of his publications and collaborations, Erdős never received mathematics’ highest prize, the Fields Medal, nor did he co-author a paper with a recipient of this award. He similarly missed out on many other of the more illustrious mathematics awards, with the most significant award bestowed on him probably being the Israeli Wolf Prize.

Despite this lack of formal recognition, Erdős’ contribution to a wide range of mathematical topics have been acknowledged by his peers, and he is fondly remembered as someone with an unwavering passion for numbers, and one of the most colourful characters in mathematics.

Celebrating sound science communication with Scientific American

Today we celebrate a veritable institution in the international popular science communication landscape – the magazine Scientific American today celebrates its incredible 167th birthday, making it the oldest continuously published monthly in the US.

Scientific American – a staple on the news stands and magazine racks of good bookshops around the world.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The first issue of the magazine, then a four page weekly newspaper, appeared on this day back in 1845.  It was published by Rufus Porter, a very interesting character who, besides being a magazine publisher, was also a painter, inventor, schoolmaster and editor. In line with Porter’s personal interests, the magazine reported on happenings in the US Patent Office, as well as having popular articles on inventions of the time.

Porter’s interest in the magazine didn’t last long – after 10 months he sold it to Alfred Beach and Orson Munn I (for a whopping $800).  It remained under ownership of Munn & Company, who, in the century between 1846 and 1948, grew it from its humble beginnings to a large and influencial periodical. In the late 40’s it was put up for sale again, and this time the magazine was sold to three partners, Gerard Piel, Dennis Flanagan, and Donald Miller Jr. They reportedly planned on starting their own new science magazine, but finding that Scientific American was for sale, they opted to rather buy that and work their ideas into the existing title. They made significant changes to the magazine, updating and broadening its appeal. Ownership remained stable from 1948 to 1986, when it was sold to the German Holtzbrinck group, who has owned it since. The current Editor in Chief is Mariette DiChristina – an experienced science journalist and the first woman in the magazine’s history to hold the position.

What has kept the magazine alive and relevant for so many years, is the fact that it has consistently focused on an educated, but not necessarily scientific public, clearly explaining the scientific concepts it reported on and maintaining strong editorial quality control. It has also, since its inception, focused on clear, explanatory visual illustrations to accompany its articles. In its long lifetime, the magazine has published contributions from many famous scientists, including more than 140 Nobel laureates. Albert Einstein contributed an article called “On the Generalized Theory of Gravitation” in 1950.

In 1996, the Scientific American website was launched. A mobile site, as well as the Scientific American Blog Network, followed in 2011. For the past 10 years since 2002, the magazine has been hosting its own annual awards, the Scientific American 50, recognising important science and technology contributions of the previous year, across a wide range of categories from agriculture to defence to medicine.

Here’s looking forward to many more years of quality science communication, and a big double-century celebration in 2045!

Hugo Gernsback, the father of Science Fiction

It’s time to put on your Spock-ears or fire up your light sabre (depending on whether you’re in a Star Trek or Star Wars mood, of course), dig out your favourite science fiction book or movie, and settle back for a day of serious sci-fi appreciation.  Today we celebrate the birth of Hugo Gernsback (16 Aug 1884 to 19 Aug 1967), the American inventor and publisher who is sometimes called the ‘Father of Science Fiction’ for the contribution he has made to the establishment of science fiction as an independent literary form.

Gernsback considered a perfect science fiction story to be “75 percent literature interwoven with 25 percent science”.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Gernsback was a pioneer of the modern genre of science fiction. He founded the first sci-fi magazine, ‘Amazing Stories’, in 1926, and later, after losing ownership of this magazine through bankruptcy, founded two subsequent titles, ‘Science Wonder Stories’ and ‘Air Wonder Stories’. Gernsback also played a key role in starting the idea of science fiction fandom, by publishing the contact details of the people who wrote letters to his magazines – this allowed the fans to start contacting each other, and to organise themselves into an active social movement.

In honour of Gernsback’s contribution to the genre, the annual Science Fiction Achievement Awards are called the ‘Hugos’. He was also one of 1996’s inaugural inductees into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame.

Celebrating Paperback Book Day – accessible, affordable magic

Today we celebrate one of my favourite things in the world – it’s Paperback Book Day.

I’m sure all readers of this blog will agree there’s something very special about opening and smelling a new paperback for the first time. At the same time, there’s real magic in finding a well-read, well-travelled paperback copy of a great book at a secondhand dealer – it’s nigh impossible not to buy it and take it home with you.

A stack of paperbacks to warm a chilly winter’s evening – pure bliss!
(© All Rights Reserved)

On this day in 1935 the first Penguin paperback was published in Great Britain. Before Penguin paperbacks appeared, you essentially had only three reading options – expensive hardcover books, library books, or inferior quality (both in production and content) paperbacks.

Penquin paperbacks were the brainchild of Sir Allen Lane who, after visiting Agatha Christie, found himself at the train station facing a bookstall containing only magazines and low quality Victorian paperbacks. Deciding this was not acceptable, and that good, contemporary books should be more readily available and affordable, he started a new publishing company, which became Penguin books.

Early Penguin titles included works by Agatha Christie and Ernest Hemingway. The books were colour coded – orange for fiction, blue for biography and green for crime. They sold for the price of a pack of cigarettes (sixpence), and started a publishing revolution – a staggering 3 million paperbacks were sold in the first 12 months.

Despite the massive growth in digital publishing, e-books and e-readers, and a corresponding decline in hardcover sales, the paperback market still appears fairly healthy, with many active participating publishers, including Picador, Faber & Faber, Vintage, Dover, HarperCollins, and many more.  Only recently, EL James’ ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ broke all previous paperback sales records, amazingly passing the one million sales mark in only 11 weeks (the previous record, Dan Brown’s ‘Da Vinci Code’ took 35 weeks to reach the same sales).

Of course the appearance of quality paperbacks not only implied increased access to good fiction – academic titles also became more accessible, covering a wide range of fields from art to zoology, mathematics to medicine. The importance of paperback books in the worldwide distribution of knowledge and information can hardly be overstated.

Go on, grab a book and get lost in a world of imagination and knowledge – on paperback. As Bernard Shaw once said, ‘If a book is any good, the cheaper the better’.