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What Are the Arts and Sciences?

Rockmore A&S.jpgMath/CS Professor Dan Rockmore is an interesting, outside-the-box-kind of guy — proof that a mathematician can, in some cases anyways, have the soul of a poet. He has assembled and edited a collection of essays about the various liberal arts diciplines that came out yesterday, What Are the Arts and Sciences?: A Guide for the Curious. Rockmore wrote the piece on math, and twenty-three present and two former Dartmouth faculty colleagues described their own fields. In an interview with Inside Higher Education, he details the genesis of the book:

The book came from two separate but related ideas. I was enjoying reading E. H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World to my son — and learning a lot! And I thought that it would be great if there were an analogous book that was something like a walk through the world of ideas, hopefully written in the same friendly, open and inviting manner for a broader but similarly motivated audience: the curious and eager learner of all ages.

This fed into a related constant little obsession of mine, which is an astonishment around how generally people of all ages have very little understanding or awareness of what it is that others do in their work, be they lawyers, marketing executives or bankers. This is especially true about academics — just what is it that a math professor does all day? And moreover, even within the academy, it’s true among academics. The art historian may well have no idea of what the sociologist does all day and vice versa. What is it that they are studying?

I’ve devoted a fair amount of time to trying to break down those kinds of walls here at Dartmouth, and this book is a piece of that, but with a broader audience in mind. I’m a firm believer in the idea that most people are generally curious about the world of ideas and that all they need is a nonthreatening and friendly entree, and that we’d all be better off if that curiosity could be embraced, addressed and fostered.

Beyond the intrinsic intellectual interest of this work, I hope that it will have functional benefits. Where else can a reader get a good taste of the varied ideas that animate the faculty of an Ivy League school? One author of a piece in the book suggested to me that it should be sent each year to all students admitted to the College.

In addition, let’s hope that it is read widely by the College’s faculty. I have often been struck by how few of their colleagues Dartmouth professors know — particularly outside their own division. A work that helps profs build bridges among themselves could have longterm benefits for the school.

Rockmore seems to be making a side speciality of gathering the thoughts of fellow scholars into thought-inciting displays of one kind or another. His exhibit of the mathematical formulae cherished by esteemed scientists opened in late March at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Forbes gave it a laudatory review:

Titling his project Concinnitas, and producing it using a traditional fine art printing technique, Rockmore reflects the mathematical interest in beauty back on the realm of art. The fact that these formulae do not readily reveal what is beautiful protects them from the readymade criticism that beauty is too easy. On the contrary, these aquatints lend beauty unexpected layers of complexity.

Rockmore is the Director of the Neukom Institute for Computational Science, and holds appointments as both Professor of Mathematics and also Computer Science at the College. In addition to his scholarly work, he is a frequent contributor to the HuffPost and he has three articles in The New Yorker. Take a look at his complete CV here. (By taking the time to peruse Dan Rockmore’s accomplishments, you will understand, or not, why he didn’t even merit an interview in the recent Dean of the Faculty search. Was he overqualified?)

Addendum: The following Dartmouth faculty members present and past contributed pieces to Rockmore’s book: African-American Studies (Derrick E. White); Anthropology (Sienna Craig); Art History (Ada Cohen); Astronomy (Ryan Hickox); Biology (Amy Gladfelter); Chemistry (Jon Kull); Classics (Roger B. Ulrich); Computer Science (Thomas H. Cormen); Ecology (Mark A. McPeek); Economics (Christopher Snyder); Engineering (Vicki V. May); English (Thomas H. Luxon); French (Andrea Tarnowski); Geography (Richard Wright); Geology (William B. Dade); History (Robert Bonner); Linguistics (James N. Stanford); Mathematics (Daniel Rockmore); Music (Larry Polansky); Philosophy (Adina L. Roskies); Physics (Miles Blencowe); Political Science (Russ Muirhead); Psychology (Thalia Wheatley); Religion (Susan Ackerman); Sociology (Janice McCabe); Theatre (Daniel Kotlowitz); Women’s and Gender Studies (Ivy Schweitzer).

Addendum: Right on time, Dan has a piece today in The Atlantic: Getting to Know Your Online Doppleganger.

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