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Sunday, October 22, 2006

Web of Words

Charles Seife, a journalism professor with a background in science, reviewed my book The Artist and the Mathematician in your Oct. 15 issue.

It seems that Seife has submitted every sentence in my book to a Google search, and the search resulted in two short sentences that he claimed appeared on a Web site. Even the two sentences he found were in no way identical to the ones in my book. He presented them in a way that insinuated that I have taken these sentences from the Web site, and stated: "A reader without a PhD in mathematics will be baffled by Aczel's prose. In all probability, so would an intellectual property lawyer."

But I have never, ever visited the Web site quoted by Seife. So why would two small sentences appearing in my book be similar to ones found in one out of tens of millions of Web pages searched? Every time a book of mine is published, roughly 10,000 new Web pages are created or modified, and as we all know (although apparently the journalism professor does not), Web pages proliferate and copy from each other without restriction. Some of them attribute their sources, while others do not.

For example, any search of my name on the Web encyclopedia Wikipedia.com will reveal at least 27 entries based on information in one of my 13 well-researched and authoritative books on science, which have generally been well received, have been translated into 22 languages, and have been nominated for awards. And while Wikipedia is meticulous in acknowledging and referencing its sources, not all Web sites do, and it is almost impossible to trace all sources of material appearing on the Internet. I am not saying that the Web page quoted by Seife got its information necessarily from my book, but it may have used information from a common source with my book. My sources are carefully referenced and footnoted, as I have done with every one of my many books (but as every author knows, not every sentence can be footnoted, or else no one would read the book).

I am further disturbed by Seife's sloppy writing, which habitually distorts my information and takes my sentences out of context. In his zeal to smear my name, he even tries to pull another sentence from my book and force it onto an external source. When that comparison fails because the two sentences are quite different from one another, Seife latches on to the order of names in a list. He claims that "the likelihood that the two passages would list the names in the same order is less than 1 percent, even taking into account the grouping into older and younger mathematicians." This is pure nonsense. Information from mathematicians was derived through interviews. If a mathematician listed names in a particular order (decreasing age), why do I -- or anyone else, for that matter -- have to purposely change it?

As someone with a PhD in statistics (and the author of two leading statistics textbooks, one of them now in its sixth edition), I strongly take issue with Seife's gross misuse of probability theory and logic. But what bothers me even more than Seife's lack of understanding of science is that the journalism professor apparently does not understand U.S. copyright law. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever copyrighted the order in which people's names are listed.

Unlike Seife, I am doubtful that an intellectual property lawyer would ever be "baffled" by my book -- but perhaps a libel lawyer might be baffled by his review.

-- AMIR D. ACZEL

Harvard University


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