Farewell, Roots of Unity

Last month, Evelyn Lamb shared her last “Roots of Unity” blog post. Photo courtesy of Evelyn Lamb.

Last month, Evelyn Lamb (former co-editor of this blog) shared her final post for her Roots of Unity blog, which was part of the Scientific American blog network. I’m sad to see such a fantastic math blog come to an end, but it had a good run! And, I’m eager to see what exciting new math pieces Evelyn will write in the future.

In an interview conducted over email, Evelyn reflected on her time writing the blog, shared some advice for others who want to get started with or get better at writing about math, and more.

Rachel Crowell: You started Roots of Unity 7 1/2 years ago. What are some of the ways that you have seen math blogging (and math communication in general) change during that time?

Evelyn Lamb: This is a hard question. I’m not a historian of online science communication, but my impression is that I started blogging towards the end of the big blogging bubble. The “death of blogs” is certainly overblown, but they do seem to have run their course as major parts of commercial magazine websites. (My blog ended when Scientific American shut down its blog network entirely.) But independent blogs are still alive and well in the math communication world. People are still starting new math blogs, and many old math blogs are still running.

With respect to math communication more broadly, I think there has been an increase in good math video channels (3Blue1Brown is a favorite of mine).

RC: What are some of the ways you saw your own writing/blog evolve during that time?

EL: I hope these questions get easier! 🙂 It’s hard for me to self-assess, but I definitely became more of a professional as the blog went on. (I was a postdoc my first few years blogging. I left that job to pursue writing full-time at the beginning of 2016.) But I don’t know if that is necessarily strongly reflected in Roots of Unity because for me it remained a place where I could write more personally and casually than I could for straight journalistic articles.

RC: What advice would you share with a mathematician who is thinking about starting a blog or is just generally interested in getting better at writing about math for a general audience?

EL: Honestly, I don’t really know what advice to give to people about starting a blog right now. I think there’s a lot of randomness involved in what blogs end up getting attention (and compensation, if that is part of your goal in blogging). So my biggest piece of advice is to make it enjoyable and sustainable for yourself. There are no guarantees that even very good writing will end up getting widely read, but if you enjoy it and find that it helps you learn new things or understand your own ideas better through the act of writing them down, it’ll be worth it.

I have a lot more to say about writing about math for a wide audience. I give whole talks about this, but I’ll make this shorter than one of those talks! One of the biggest challenges to writing for a broad audience about a field in which you are an expert is that it’s hard to remember not knowing certain basic ideas. Mathematicians aren’t special; this is true in any field. In math, we have an extra challenge that many, many people have had traumatic experiences with math classes in school, and if they find your article hard to follow, it could reinforce their belief that they can’t understand math. It’s a lot of pressure!

In science communication in general, I really like the advice I’ve heard that you shouldn’t underestimate your readers’ intelligence or overestimate their background knowledge. Think of them as smart, curious people who just don’t have the same specialized vocabulary and familiarity with the field that you do. It’s hard to avoid jargon altogether, although you can do without more of it than you might think. I try to limit the number of new words and ideas in any one article I write. That might mean I have to be a little broad or vague at some points, but I prioritize giving a big general picture over more precise technical information. Something I tell myself all the time is, “If they wanted to read a textbook, they’d read a textbook.” People are reading math blogs or popular science articles about math because they want to play with ideas in math or see how math is related to some other area of life, not because they want to write academic papers on the topic. I try to include links and resource suggestions so that readers who do want to understand the details on a more granular level have a good place to start.

RC: What do you think we need more of in math communication right now?

EL: Compassion and humanity. Mathematics is a human activity, and as such it is subject to the same forces that shape other human activities. What counts as math, what counts as interesting math, and what our basic axioms and assumptions should be all come from human value judgments. Recognizing math as a human endeavor means telling the stories of the people who do math–people of different genders, races, religions, nationalities, socioeconomic backgrounds, and preferred ways of thinking about and doing math–and looking at who has historically shaped the discipline and who has been excluded from it. It means showing readers why mathematicians love their work and investigating why the work starts with the assumptions it does. Bringing compassion into math communication means not making your readers feel inferior because they’ve made math mistakes or have a different relationship with math than you do.

Something I think we need less of in math communication is a persecution complex. Many mathematicians think everyone hates math and mathematicians and no one wants to read about math. It’s true that many people do have math anxiety and trauma, but I have learned that there is an enthusiastic audience for stories about math. People want to understand more about it and how it is related to other aspects of life. Popular science magazines want more accessible, entertaining math stories in their pages. To write well about math, we need to drop the defensiveness and meet people where they are.

RC: You mentioned at the end of your last blog post that you were going to share a few of your favorite posts, but I’m not seeing links to those (unless I’m missing something). Can you share those with me now?

EL: Yeah, there was a problem with the links in the post, and now that I don’t have access to the site, I haven’t been able to see what happened or get it fixed. Here’s the list that was supposed to be at the end of the post:

What Is the Funniest Number?
Knotted Needles Make Knitted Knots
The Media and the Genius Myth
What’s So Great about Continued Fractions?
The Cantor Function: Angel or Devil?
Grapefruit Math
A Few of My Favorite Spaces: Cantor’s Leaky Tent
The Subterfuge of Epsilon and Delta
Black Mathematical Excellence: A Q&A with Erica Walker
How to Confuse a Traveling Mathematician
The Male Gaze in a Math Book
Avant-Garde Music and Distributed Computing
An Unexpected Encounter with Set Theory in the Wild
The Serenity of Kakeya
Thank You, Sophie, and I’m Sorry
How to Unfold a Pool Table
Household Chores for Mathematicians

A Few of My Favorite Spaces: The Pseudo-Rhombicuboctahedron

The Metonymy of Matrices
Why Isn’t 1 a Prime Number?
The Serendipity of Swiss Cheese
Diagonalizing the Psalms
The Intersected States of America

I’m a little embarrassed about how long it is, but I did write about 350 posts at Roots of Unity, so there were a lot to choose from!

RC: Are there any new long-term projects that you’re excited to get started on?

EL: This has been a strange time to have my workload change suddenly. Like many people, I have been struggling with getting things done, even things I’m enthusiastic about, since early March when the pandemic started. In addition to covid-19, there was a fairly large earthquake in Salt Lake City in mid-March (with fun aftershocks for about the next month) that further shredded my attention span. (We were very lucky that the damage was minimal.) So I have allowed the end of the blog to give me a little bit more breathing room in my work life. I’m still working on some other freelance projects, and I have some ideas for books that I’d like to try to develop more in the next year or so. I published a book-like project, a page-a-day calendar sold by the AMS (obligatory self-promotion here), last year, and even though it has some big differences from a traditional book, I think going through that process was good training.

RC: Is there anything else you would like to add?

EL: I am grateful to Scientific American for giving me the opportunity to write about math for their readers and the freedom to experiment with what and how I did it.

Have an idea for a topic or a blog you would like for me and Vanessa to cover in upcoming posts? Reach out in the comments below or on Twitter (@writesRCrowell).

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