“Mammoth” Reading Group

A reading group is an important part of the information exchange process, provoking essential dialogue designed to promote, exercise, and enlarge the powers of the mind. Usually, a reading group discusses (great) academic papers or a book chapter on a weekly basis, allocating 45-50-60 minutes to each piece of work. This reading group is different! The goal is to “Read for Honours” but without the examination… We only meet once per month, namely on the last Friday of the month (except December), to unplug from the day-to-day activities. We meet for a period of around 5 hours and will hopefully continue for after-hours discussions somewhere in the city (it’s Friday night for Christ’s sake 😉). Why hopefully around five hours? There was a time when scholars sat for hours (sometimes daily…) in coffee houses to discuss problems (see, e.g., Stanislav Ulam’s experience as a student in Poland (Adventure of a Mathematician)). Ulam was surprised by what he experienced as a Harvard Junior Fellow: “I had my meals at Adams House, and the lunches there were particularly agreeable. We sat at a long table – young men and sometimes great professors; the conversations were very pleasant. But often, towards the end of a meal, one after the other would gulp his coffee and suddenly announce: “Excuse me, I’ve got to go to work!” Young as I was I could not understand why people wanted to show themselves to be such hard workers. I was surprised at this lack of self-assurance, even on the part of some famous scholars. Later I learned about the Puritan belief in hard work – or at least in appearing to be doing hard work. Students had to show that they were conscientious; the older professors did the same. This lack of self-confidence was strange to me, although it was less objectionable than the European arrogance. In Poland, people would also pretend and fabricate stories, but in the opposite sense. They might have been working frantically all night, but they pretended they never worked at all. This respect for work appeared to me as part of the Puritan emphasis on action versus thought, so different from the aristocratic traditions of Cambridge, England, for example” (pp. 87-88).

The goals of this reading group are to provide not only a critical discussion of the content of the books but also to discuss open research questions, scientific puzzles, big picture questions, and perhaps even potential collaborative attempts. There are quite a large number of books listed per session (it would be possible to fill an entire year of discussion on the books allocated for one session…or a year for an entire book (particularly for Marvin Minsky’s books)). If you are keen to participate just read what you can and what you are interested in: try to see the reading list as a potential roadmap (the reading group should not be a stressful experience…). Regular attendance would be great to develop a “common language” over time but if you just show up for a particular topic that is okay too.