The Joy of x Podcast: A Tour

The Joy of x podcast logo.

The Joy of x podcast is a series of conversations with a wide range of scientists about their lives, work, and what fostered their passion. It is hosted by Steven Strogatz in collaboration with QuantaMagazine. The format of this podcast makes it seem like you are joining an intimate session where you are privy to the interviewee’s lived experiences and how it has influenced their journey so far. Steven Strogatz, an applied mathematician, and author, really sparks the curiosity of listeners by displaying his own joy for discovery and scientific quests. In each episode, you get a clear sense of the joy behind the search for answers for the big questions these mathematicians tackle. As said by Strogatz in Why I’m Hosting The Joy of x Podcast,

“Through this podcast, I’ve been learning about the inner lives of some of the most intriguing mathematicians and scientists working today. A few are old friends and colleagues, while others are people I’ve still never met in person: Until their voices came through my headset, I knew them only through their research. But in every case, I wanted to know what makes them tick. I wanted to know why they do what they do, what they’ve discovered, and why it matters to them and to the world.” – Steven Strogatz

In the press release, QuantaMagazine Launches new podcast ‘The Joy of x’, we get the full line-up of this series which will have 12 episodes (one per week) that run from 40 to 75 minutes each and features a fantastic group of scientists and mathematicians including “mathematical physicist Robbert Dijkgraaf, mathematical biologist Corina Tarnita, mathematician Alex Kontorovich, neurobiologist Leslie Vosshall, mathematician and retired NFL player John Urschel, theoretical cosmologist Janna Levin, mathematician Tadashi Tokieda, neurobiologist Cori Bargmann, astrophysicist Brian Keating, mathematician Moon Duchin, mathematician Rebecca Goldin, and psychologist Brian Nosek.” 

So far, the podcast has released six episodes featuring Priya Natarajan (Yale University), Alex Kontovorich  (Rutgers University), Leslie Vosshall (Rockefeller University), Robbert Dijkgraaf (Director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton), Corina Tarnita (Princeton University), and John Urschel (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). There is a great variety in the fields represented by the interviewees. If you enjoy exploring all sorts of areas of science and knowing the minds behind interesting questions, this podcast is for you. You can listen to the trailer below!

For me, the power of this podcast is listening to people share their stories. This adds a new dimension to them that is missed in how we talk about science and math. In this post, I review and give a glimpse of the latest three episodes.

John Urschel: From NFL Player to Mathematician

In this episode, we listen to mathematician and former NFL football player John Urschel. Currently, he is a Ph.D. Candidate at MIT where he studies topics in Convex Geometry, Graph Theory, Machine Learning, and Numerical Analysis. He shares the pressures of “living two lives” as an NFL football player and graduate student. For example, how qualifying exams can feel like the only chance to prove that you belong in the fields and how strategic quitting can be a valuable skill. From a very young age, he discovered the joy in solving challenging puzzles which turned into a passion for math. While his work has many applications, what he really enjoys is “digging out the math that makes the machine work”. This translates into going from a real-world problem, moving it to a more abstract yet beautiful representation and towards a generalization. You can read more about his journey in this interview about his upcoming book “Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football”. 

Corina Tarnita and the Deep Mathematics of Social Insects

In this episode, we listen to Corina Tarnita a mathematical biologist with a passion for patterns. She nurtured her mathematical ability by tackling problem-solving from a young age through the encouragement of her mother and participation in math olympiads. Her love for math sparked a love for biology. As she elegantly put it, “there is something remarkable about the diversity of solutions that nature has found for this unbelievable complex problems.” Using mathematical models, she discovered that termite colonies and plant competition for resources drive the patterns that can be seen like “pepperoni slices on a pizza” in the grasslands of Namibia. What I enjoyed the most about this interview, what of course the connection between the math, the biology, and also a bit of chance. I won’t spoil the story but sometimes, even when math points in the right direction, it takes being in the field to connect the dots. You can read more about Tarnita’s story and work in A Mathematician Who Decodes the Patterns Stamped Out by Life.

Robbert Dijkgraaf on Exploring Quantum Reality

In the episode, we listen to Robbert Dijkgraff a mathematical physicist who rediscovered his passion for physics through art. Through his career, even as a young scientist, he valued the power of collaboration. He retells how collaborating with his childhood friend allowed them to use both their strengths to make discoveries. He spent two years at an art school in the Netherlands, where it brought him a new perspective, “it’s about how adventurous are you, are you willing to go to other fields?… You could just explore, explore, explore.” This allowed him to bring this sense of adventure to what it means to be a research scientist. He works in the field of string theory, a field that hopes to bring together the theory of general relativity (i.e. the theory of the very large) and quantum theory (i.e. the theory of the small). Matrix models, which have symmetry at its core, can be used to build strings, gravity, and space-time. What I loved about this interview is the great commentary on how we experience time and space differently as humans. You can read more about Dijkgraff’s views on mathematical conjectures in his recent post, “The Subtle Art of the Mathematical Conjecture”.

Do you have suggestions of topics you would like us to consider covering in upcoming posts? Reach out to us in the comments below or let us know on Twitter! You can find me at @MissVRiveraQ.


About Vanessa Rivera-Quinones

Mathematics Ph.D. with a passion for telling stories through numbers using mathematical models, data science, science communication, and education. Follow her on Twitter: @VRiveraQPhD.
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