Books interview: Adam Kucharski

Adam Kucharski, author of The Rules of Contagion, on books that piqued his interest in mathematics, and those that showed how maths could be applied to serve public health by modelling infectious diseases – and happiness

March 12, 2020
Adam Kucharski
Source: Bret Hartman/TED

What sorts of books inspired you as a child?
Books such as Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences, by John Allen Paulos, sparked my interest in mathematics, showing how easy it can be to fall into mathematical mistakes, and what we can do to avoid them. Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces captured the excitement of science and the power of the scientific method, to such an extent that for a long time I wanted to be a physicist when I grew up.

Your new book, The Rules of Contagion, explores the spread of diseases, ideas and even happiness. Which books spurred you to study epidemics?
The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Epidemic in History, by John Barry, explored the social and medical implications of the 1918 “Spanish flu” pandemic, illustrating how widely and deeply contagion can be felt. Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference made me think more about the processes that might drive epidemics (even if many of the ideas in the book aren’t so convincing now that I work in this field). I came across the textbook Modeling Infectious Diseases in Humans and Animals, by Matt Keeling and Pejman Rohani, during my undergraduate study. This was the first time I’d seen how mathematical models could apply to public health and help us understand – and, ideally, control – infectious diseases.

What books would you recommend for non-specialists wanting to know more about the risks of epidemics and the precautions they should take?
Smallpox: The Death of a Disease, by D. A. Henderson, is an excellent first-hand account of the efforts to eradicate the smallpox virus, explaining along the way why it was controllable and what we might face in future, from bioterrorism to re-emerging threats. Sinead Walsh and Oliver Johnson’s Getting to Zero: A Doctor and a Diplomat on the Ebola Frontline gives a really useful perspective on the political and medical challenges involved in controlling the 2014-16 epidemic, and such challenges occur all too often for others diseases, too.

Can you suggest some good general accounts of the “contagion” of ideas (and fake news) we are witnessing in an age of social media?
Duncan Watts’ Everything Is Obvious: Why Common Sense Is Nonsense has some great examples of how online experiments are transforming our understanding of how ideas spread. Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, by Zeynep Tufekci, looks at how social media has fed real-life activism and protests, while Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is a thoughtful exploration of how – and why – people have become infamous online.

What is the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?
My wife has worked on some major initiatives to address gender inequality in her field of advertising, so I recently gave her a copy of Women & Power: A Manifesto, by Mary Beard, which traces the history of female public voices.

What books do you have on your desk waiting to be read?
Superior: The Return of Race Science, by Angela Saini, was a fascinating, important book, so I’ve got her earlier book Inferior: The True Power of Women and the Science That Shows It on my to-read list as well. As someone who did their PhD in a department of applied mathematics and theoretical physics, I also want to read Sabine Hossenfelder’s provocative book Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, which argues that an obsession with mathematical elegance has hindered progress in physics. Another book on my list is Michael Kearns and Aaron Roth’s The Ethical Algorithm: The Science of Socially Aware Algorithm Design, which looks at how we can make widely used algorithms ethically sound and socially beneficial.

Adam Kucharski is an associate professor in the Centre for the Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. His latest book is The Rules of Contagion: Why Things Spread – and Why They Stop (Profile).


Print headline: Shelf life: Adam Kucharski

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