Elle O’Brien ’13
Do you have any special areas of interest, academic or otherwise?
I’m really heavy into computational neuroscience, the intersection of mathematics with the biology of the nervous system. I’m also an avid musician with a growing penchant for Irish, bluegrass and early blues music.
What are your favorite resources at McCain Library?
I always stop by for one of the free papers.
Do you enjoy reading? How would you describe yourself as a reader?
I read regularly, on the train or before bed. I confess that it’s not totally natural to me and requires a fair amount of discipline. I like to read journal articles about unusual, generally controversial or fringe mathematical models before bed so that I can dream on them.
What kind of books to you like to read outside of your classwork?
I suspect I am a bit unusual in my selection habits. I seldom take up a fiction book for fun. It’s not because my imagination is tired, it’s that I am so wildly in love with this reality I can’t stand to abandon it. My favorite topic is the birth of mathematical movements, such as chaos theory starting in the 1960s: who were the players, what were they up against, and what were their inspirations? This type of literature also tends to be a fantastic introduction to the feeling and intuition of theories without getting bogged down in details. I always leave with a new, creative framework for considering the natural world. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I also enjoy books about strategy (I have an unexplained affinity for Gary Kasparov), linguistics and history.
What books do you recommend as must-reads?
The Mystery of the Aleph by Amir Aczel is a thrilling examination of the forces that changed how mathematicians conceptualize infinity. The reader uncovers the work and life of Georg Cantor, who is driven by mental illness as much as the pioneering spirit, and the ancient mysticism attached to numbers that that was to some degree formalized by his work.
What kind of movies do you enjoy watching?
Are there any movies you recommend?
The History of the World, Part 1.
Do you have any memorable stories about reading that you can share?
I was always a fast reader, and while I could tear through books in elementary school, I rarely got any joy out of it. I suppose I just didn’t get any thrill from escapism, and I relished feeling busy beside a textbook. I didn’t read much for fun in middle school or high school aside from philosophy, which I laboriously copied on a pad beside me to drill the logic in. One winter break from college, though, I finally came to enjoy a work of fiction. It was Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. I was captivated by the empathy I felt for the characters, for the thought and consideration the writer had put into their motivations. They were people I wanted to read. Not only did I finish the book, I actually read the rest of the series. After that, I suppose the whole “reading fiction for fun” business made sense to me.