Add Gentry, Stein to list of Davis writers

November 24, 1996
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

Davis writers continue to publish at a rapid pace including two relative newcomers, Anita Gentry and Sherman Stein. Actually, both Gentry and Stein have been community members for years - both associated with the UC Davis campus - but Gentry now calls Sacramento home.

They have written about completely different subjects. Gentry has written a mystery novel, "Night Summons" (St. Martin's, 1996), that involves bloody politics in a psychology department at a fictitious university. Stein has written a book of non-fiction, a math book called "Strength in Numbers: Discovering the Joy and Power of Mathematics in Everyday Life" (John Wiley & Sons, 1996).

Stein was a math professor at UC Davis for many years while Gentry also taught and worked in myriad university departments - including the psychology department.

"I've been around many university campuses so the details in 'Night Summons' are a composite, not all from UCD," said Gentry in a recent interview. She was born in the Vanderbilt University hospital in Nashville, Tenn., and grew up in Norman, Okla., where her father earned his Ph.D. and later directed the child development programs at the University of Oklahoma Extension Center.

Gentry wrote her first novel in sixth grade. It was 100 pages long and while she says the dialog was stilted and unrealistic, she always knew she was going to be a writer. She graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in French and later earned a master's and Ph.D. in French from UC Davis in 1978. She taught and worked on campus in various capacities for next 10 years, then worked at Sac State in the foreign languages department for five years.

"Night Summons" started out as a short story years ago, Gentry said, and underwent many changes before she sent it off to St. Martin's. And while the novel does describe inter-departmental warfare - something Gentry witnessed a lot of in many different departments - she still appreciates the ivory tower.

"I love university life," she said. "Learning is a wonderful thing."

Gentry is now working on her second Athena Dawes mystery.

While this isn't Professor Stein's first math book, "Strength in Numbers" is aimed at a popular audience.

"Practically everyone can understand and enjoy mathematics and appreciate its role in modern society," he writes. "More generally, I feel that we develop only a small part of our potential, not only in mathematics but also in art, carpentry, cooking, drawing, singing, and so on. We close up too soon. Each of us can reach a higher level than we imagine if we are willing to explore the world and ourselves. I hope that this book will help people explore and feel at home in the world of mathematics."

He says no math knowledge beyond basic arithmetic and high school geometry is needed in order to understand and appreciate "Strength in Numbers." His book also takes a look at math controversies such as the best and worst ways to teach math (Stein himself won the UCD Distinguished Teaching Award) and the continuing need for math education as it relates to the workplace despite the prevalence of computers.

Stein also includes a chapter debunking math myths. One oft-repeated myth suggests that Albert Einstein, as a schoolboy, was poor at arithmetic. "On the contrary, he was quite good at it," says Stein. But when he was a pupil his school inverted the grading system, making a high grade a low one. Anyone looking at Einstein's report card not knowing this would conclude that Einstein was poor in math.

Another myth suggests that there's no Nobel Prize in math because a mathematician had an affair with Nobel's wife. Wrong again, says Stein. While conceding that this story appeals to the pride of mathematicians, Stein says Nobel was a lifelong bachelor.

A third myth goes like this: There's nothing new in mathematics. It's a dead subject.

"In fact," says Stein, "it is still in its golden age, which stretches without interruption back to the Renaissance. If I were to pick a starting date for this period, it would be the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1439. The shift from handwritten manuscripts to printed books suddenly made ancient knowledge and modern discoveries available to a broad public."

And it's also not true to say that mathematicians spend their days doing nothing but studying numbers. Logicians, topologists, algebraists and theoretical computer scientists may never do any calculations, may never even bump into a number.

So if it's math you want, reach for Stein's book. If it's a mystery you want, reach for Gentry's.

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