Postdoc Proust: Michael J. Barany

What was your first degree and where did you study?
I grew up around the University of Minnesota, which is where my parents met each other, so even though I didn’t get a formal degree from “the U” I consider that my first home in higher education. I mostly studied math at Minnesota (in enrichment programs and eventually formal coursework and research), and continued as a math major at Cornell University for my bachelor’s degree, while also studying critical theory, science & technology studies, and other fields that I eventually learned to combine as a historian of mathematics.

What is your secret vice?
Sour gummy candies. All of them. (Though not all of the time, alas.)

What was your favorite childhood toy or activity? Do you still do/play this?
When I was a small child, I carried around a stuffed dog named “Barney” as often as I could. I remember being a bit startled once when told that Barney had a TV show and then finding out it was about a purple dinosaur instead.

You’re stranded on a desert island. You can choose three books, two music albums, and one movie, what are they?
I have a hard time imagining what media would keep me sated on a desert island, but history tells me they ought to include an encyclopedia (let’s say Diderot’s) and a bible. Throw in a collection of Borges stories and I think I’d be alright. For music, ought to take some Beethoven Symphonies (my hometown Minnesota Orchestra recorded them all recently) and a collection of earworms like the Vent du Nord album ‘Les Amants du Saint-Laurent’ I picked up when they passed through Cornell for a show. At an art museum, I once saw a short film called something like “The Enumeration of Sheep” (or an equivalent in Spanish) that I haven’t been able to track down since. It showed sheep walking in a circle as a bell tolled, with sheep joining or leaving the circle one by one. Absolutely transfixing. Let me know if you know the work!

What is your signature dish?
While (avoiding) writing my MSc thesis, I got pretty good at baking sourdough bread.

On a sunny afternoon you suddenly find you’ve completed all your work (including laundry, grocery shopping etc.), what do you do?
I’d go for a long walk. Somehow these always feel distinctly better after having wrapped up a major project.

What is your greatest fear?
It’s not my greatest fear, but since this is a postdoc profile I should say that the academic job market can be scary and bewildering.

What’s your hidden superpower?
Editing academic prose, but you have to share your work with me to see the superpower in action!

What did you want to be when you were 18?
A mathematician. That was before I learned what mathematicians really did, and decided I’d much rather study mathematicians than be one.

How did you find your research niche?
I started studying the history of mathematics as a way of combining my interests in mathematics and critical theory. Among other things, I think my emphasis on the intersection of institutional and intellectual history of science comes in part out of an interest developed through the Telluride Association (an educational non-profit I’ve been a part of for over a decade) in combining bureaucracy, ideas, and social justice.

What are you most excited to experience at Dartmouth?
It has been exciting to participate (in my small way) in faculty activism at Dartmouth, and to be a part of an academic community including students and faculty at all levels who are thinking (and acting!) critically about how academic scholarship can and should make the world better.