Higher Mathematics in Nouns and Verbs
William Minicozzi, professor of mathematics, Krieger School
Mathematics explains itself best in numerals and symbols, but for those who must rely on written English, there are books that vividly convey some of how mathematicians think and work. The instructor notes the absence of a good layperson’s guide to his specialty, minimal surfaces. Extra credit for any student who writes one.
- Sync: How Order Emerges from Chaos in the Universe, Nature, and Daily Life, by Steven H. Strogatz. The study of synchrony melds biology, mathematics, and physics to explain the fascinating tendency of things in the world, both animate and inanimate, to spontaneously move from randomness to order.
- Fermat’s Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World’s Greatest Mathematical Problem, by Simon Singh. A fascinating narrative account of how Andrew Wiles, a mathematician at Princeton, solved a 350-year-old problem, one of the most famous in all of mathematics.
Society Can Be Dangerous to Your Health
Thomas LaVeist, professor of health policy and management, Bloomberg School of Public Health
Public concern for your health, and your chances of having a favorable encounter with the American medical system, depends to a significant degree on your answers to the following questions: Are you an immigrant? Are you black? Are you poor? Class readings will demonstrate that your odds get worse with each affirmative answer.
- The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman. The tragic account of what befell a Hmong family after their daughter was diagnosed with severe epilepsy.
- Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, by Eric Klinenberg. A weeklong heat wave in 1995 killed more than 700 people in Chicago, most of them socially isolated elderly people who died silently behind closed doors. Klinenberg pulls apart how this disaster came about.
- Mama Might Be Better Off Dead: The Failure of Health Care in Urban America, by Laurie Kaye Abraham. The author limns how the health system fails the urban poor through the story of four generations of an unhealthy and uninsured African American family in Chicago.
- Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor, by Paul Farmer. How despotic governments and global financial organizations like the International Monetary Fund wreak havoc on the health of billions of people in the Third World.
- Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, by Harriet A. Washington. The Tuskegee experiments on unwitting African American syphilitics were not isolated incidents—the history of medical experiments on blacks goes back to Thomas Jefferson.
Nature, Nurture, and Cognition
Barbara Landau, professor of cognitive science, Krieger School
Based on the instructor’s Johns Hopkins freshman seminar in cognitive science. The nature of human knowledge: where it comes from, how it’s learned, the effects of damage and genetic deficit. The readings explore four key topics: language, perception and visual organization, number, and the understanding of other human minds.
- The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language, by Steven Pinker. Pinker believes the human brain contains innate grammatical machinery developed by evolution, as wired into us as sonar is wired into bats.
- Phantoms in the Brain, by V.S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee. (See above course listing for The Thinking Self Thinks Itself.)
- The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics, by Stanislas Dehaene. Pinker ponders language, Dehaene ponders math. His story begins with a counting horse named Hans.
- Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind, by Simon Baron-Cohen. People “mindread” all the time, gauging what someone thinks, wants, intends. Autistic children, Baron-Cohen believes, cannot do this—they suffer from mindblindness.
And Now for the Really Big Picture: Modern Cosmology
Charles Bennett, professor of physics and astronomy, Krieger School
There have been no bangs as big as the original whammo 14 billion years ago, at least so far as we know. An introduction to modern cosmology and its explanation of how everything we know came into being in a cosmic flash.
- Your Cosmic Context: An Introduction to Modern Cosmology, by Todd Duncan and Craig Tyler. Your cosmological starting point, which begins with the simplest of first steps: looking up.
- Echo of the Big Bang, by Michael D. Lemonick. A narrative account of the creation and launch of the WMAP satellite that found the universe to be 13.7 billion years old, 23 percent dark matter, and flat, at least in cosmological terms.
- The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality, by Brian Greene. Professor Greene’s second appearance in our catalog. He goes where most fear to tread— attempting to explain string theory, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, inflationary cosmology, and other ideas that are not what you’d call intuitive.
- Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution, by Neil Degrasse Tyson and Donald Goldsmith. Companion volume to a NOVA television series that attempts a history of the whole shebang with concision and wit.
Dale Keiger is Johns Hopkins Magazine’s associate editor.
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