A Conversation With Jim Propp

I recently had the tremendous pleasure of attending the 2019 BAHFest at MIT, an event in which very clever people deliver convincing arguments in support of absolutely ridiculous bad ad hoc hypotheses to a packed auditorium of nerds. Happily, this year one of those nerds was me, and one of the presenters was Jim Propp, a professor of mathematics at UMass Lowell, who you might know as the blogger of Mathematical Enchantments.

This was Propp’s second year presenting at BAHFest. You can (and should!) watch the video of his 2017 first-prize-winning presentation, “Dinosaur Extinction Caused By Gravitational Reversal Event,” and you can read this Q&A about how he develops his BAHFest material.

Since I write for a blog on math blogs, and cool math bloggers are my beat, I decided to call up Propp and have a chat with him about his experiences and inspirations in the realm of math outreach in blogging, BAHFest, and beyond.

Jim Propp also serves on the advisory council of the National Museum of Mathematics in New York City. Photo courtesy of Jim Propp.

Propp understands that blogging, writing, and generally contributing to math communication outside of the standard academic framework can be a challenge. Blogging takes time, and it is a reality that this type of writing is not as highly valued as research writing. And even if one has the time and support to blog, not all ideas are ready to be put into written word. I think this might be what people call writer’s block.

To help his thoughts gather momentum and clarity, Propp keeps a continually updating text document of ideas. I do something similar, but I email myself ideas and put them in my “ideas folder.” And this is a good thing, “let things sit for a long time and let them accumulate,” he says, “there will be time to blog later.” Documenting your ideas is a powerful practice.

I asked Propp what kind of advice he has for aspiring bloggers or math writers, he says “a piece of advice I got early on was that once a month is too seldom to post.” A sagacious suggestion to be sure, but one that Propp intentionally chose to ignore. Instead he posts precisely once per month, but always on the same day. “Regularity is helpful,” he says, so don’t be scared by these superhuman bloggers that post twice a week (I’m lookin’ at you Mathbabe).

Another suggestion that Propp likes to ignore is to “make pieces shorter.” Like one of his writing role models, Martin Gardner, Propp prefers long form essays that really take time to explore ideas. But although most of his posts are several thousands of words, Propp still likes the challenge of condensing his writing, and keeping a high “density of ideas per paragraph.” And this is part of what makes his blog so enchanting. Each essay opens an idea to its fullest, whether explaining the beauty of dimensional analysis or delivering a treatise on “Thirdsday.” Propp writes, “Hardly any of my Mathematical Enchantments pieces are “blogs” in the traditional sense; rather, they’re my way of testing out ideas, trying out ways of explaining those ideas, and more broadly, becoming a better expositor.”

I myself prefer a short paragraph without any ideas in it at all.

For newcomers to Mathematical Enchantments, Propp recommends the following posts:

Propp also hosts a list of practical style tips for blogging about math in WordPress, including some (sadly imperfect) workarounds for rendering LaTeX in HTML and getting those sweet math graphics into your post. If you’re looking for some more nuanced tips about the writing part of blogging, you might also enjoy Rachel Crowell’s recent post, “A roundup of advice for writing about mathematics.

Our conversation made me curious, dear reader. Have you ever considered starting a blog of your own? Why haven’t you done it yet? What feel like the biggest hurdles?

Propp has the eventual plan to publish thematic collections of his essays in book form, “I don’t know how to write a book,” he says, “but I know how to write a lot of them at once.” We will look forward to that, and in the meantime, you can reach out to Propp in the comments section on this blog, or find him on Twitter @JimPropp. And if you need me, I’ll be there too @extremefriday.

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