Every year since 1999, MIT’s mathematics department hosts the Simons Lecture Series, “to celebrate the most exciting mathematical work by the very best mathematicians of our time.” This year, the lecturers were Cornell’s Steven Strogatz and Princeton’s Manjul Barghava. I was incredibly lucky to be able to catch two of Steve Strogatz’s lectures last week. In particular, I enjoyed the third lecture, entitled “Blogging about math for the New York Times”. I thought I would blog about Strogatz’s blogging experiences, making this a sort of meta-blog post or composition of two blogs (this last interpretation was Mike Breen’s idea.)
Some of you may recall that early last year the New York Times online had a series of articles entitled “The Elements of Math”, written by Steve Strogatz. This 15-column series went through all of the big ideas in mathematics, starting with numbers and counting and ending with a discussion of infinity. From the very first post, From Fish to Infinity, the column was immensely popular, getting over 500 comments. Although after a show of hands in the audience, it was clear that the column might not have been quite as popular among mathematicians. Strogatz reacted by playfully adding: “Well look at that… you bastards.”
Strogatz was asked by the New York Times’ op-ed editor, David Shipley, to write a series of columns about mathematics. The main problem was deciding what this really meant. Strogatz envisioned a column which dealt with topical mathematics, or mathematics inspired by current affairs and the news of the moment. Shipley wanted Strogatz to go through all of mathematics from elementary school to the most advanced ideas. At the heart of the matter was a very important question: who would be the target audience for this blog? Strogatz then listed a few possibilities:
-Tautologically, we could say the audience is people who read the New York Times (but that doesn’t get you anywhere.)
– The cynical point of view would be to just focus on mathematicians and scientists who already know the basics.
– Yet another point of view would be to lure fans of Martin Gardner’s columns in Scientific American by including puzzlers.
– The column could be for the parents of children who are learning math in school and who are usually baffled by their kids’ homework.
– One audience member said it might be interesting to write about topics that might help people read (and write) the news. To focus on number sense.
– Yet another audience member mentioned that one might want to write for many different audiences, and cater each post to a different group.
– Shipley actually asked Strogatz if he could just write for smart people who don’t know any math.
Finally, Strogatz decided that he would write these posts with one representative person in mind, his friend the actor Alan Alda. This was, he said, a perfect example of someone who loved science (he hosted Scientific American Frontiers for PBS for many years), but knew very little math. In fact, he was an avid reader of science magazines but seemed lost when it came to understanding some of the more abstract ideas in mathematics. He decided he would focus on helping people navigate through the turn-offs (the symbols and formulas), on explaining what mathematicians do, and on helping people at least understand why we love math.
Another issue Strogatz dealt with was trying to decide what tone to use. There is the John Allen Paulos approach (or what Strogatz called the “I’m trying to help you, you moron” approach), the Paul Lockhart approach (more critical of the way we’re teaching math in K-12), and many others. Strogatz opted for a more positive tone, and said he was inspired by Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts in that he wanted to make the readers feel like he was sharing something wonderful with them. He also said he talked as little about himself as possible, and tried to emphasize the ideas of math.
His final challenge was then what to write those 15 columns about. On the one hand, people really appreciate finally learning something that they didn’t understand the first time around. But should new ideas be covered* as well? Looking back on his column and readers’ reactions, Strogatz shared with us this conjecture: “You can get away with being abstract or unfamiliar, but not both.” Abstract ideas like the Pythagorean theorem were well received because they were very familiar. Unfamiliar ideas like conditional probabilities were well received because they could be presented in very concrete examples. But the one post that was panned by a commenter as being the one where the series jumped the shark was the one on geodesics on a torus, which was both abstract and unfamiliar. I actually quite enjoyed the post, but I guess I’m not the target audience so it doesn’t matter.
This talk was really fun especially as someone who, as a teacher and sometimes writer of math, thinks often about communicating mathematics. Hopefully, if any of you are thinking of these issues too, Strogatz’s advice will come in handy. Another article I thought I should mention is this one by John Baez, published in the Notices.
* Many people these days take issue with the term “cover” when it comes to teaching. The usual comment is “we shouldn’t be covering, but uncovering the material”. Strogatz suggests we use a different interpretation of the word cover, the one used by musicians. So when he says “cover” he means to give a “fresh interpretation of something old”. I thought this was a lovely way to put it.