March 7, 2010

New York Times Chooses Cornell Professor for Weekly Online Column on Math

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Many give up on math at the first sight of long division or a confusing derivative. The New York Times has chosen Prof. Steve Strogatz, applied mathematics, to write a weekly online column about math for just this reason. Intended for a wide-ranging audience, the series will cover everything from the basics to complex conundrums.

Strogatz had written several guest pieces for the opinion section of The Times and has since become friends with David Shipley, the section’s editor. The two met last October, and Shipley proposed that Strogatz write a regular column about math. Strogatz said he thought the column would cover news in the math world, but Shipley wanted a structured series that started with numbers and addition and worked its way up to more complicated graduate-level topics.

Strogatz is the only Cornell faculty member to write online for The Times. Linda Greenhouse, a Yale Law Professor who covered the Supreme Court for 30 years, is the only other Ivy League professor who writes for The Times’ web edition.

Since Strogatz is not teaching any classes this semester, he said it proved the perfect time to write the 15-article series.

“It’s a lot of work — I’m not used to writing on a deadline — but it’s been very gratifying because people have been really appreciative, and I’ve gotten a lot of comments thanking me for doing this,” Strogatz said.

The first article, titled “From Fish to Infinity,” used a Sesame Street episode to discuss numbers and the concept of addition. Strogatz has gone on to write about subtraction, division, and algebra. Each article receives a flood of mostly positive comments.

“This [column] is accessible, educational, and thought-provoking, and I hate math so thank you. I hope you sign up to be a regular columnist!” stated one reader online.

The next article, which comes out Monday, will cover imaginary numbers and some of the work of Prof. John Hubbard, mathematics.

Since there has been such of strong response the series, Strogatz is considering writing a book on explaining math.

“Writing for a general audience that may not know much about math or even be traumatized by some horrible math experience is a fun challenge,” he said. “The thought that I may be able to reach some of them and make them see something good in the subject is a fun challenge.”

This is not Strogatz’s first experience, however, with the media. He is a frequent guest on National Public Radio’s RadioLab and recorded several lectures on chaos theory for the Teaching Company in 2008.

He first began studying applied math as a student at Princeton and later at Harvard and Trinity College in Cambridge, England. The Na­tional Science Foundation named Strogatz a postdoctoral fellow, and he went on to teach at MIT for five years where he received several teaching awards. He was selected as a fellow for the Society for Industrial and Applied Math­ematics in 2009 for his investigations of small-world networks and coupled oscillators and for outstanding science communication.

“More than anything, I want to teach and lecture,” Strogatz said. “Ap­plying math and thinking about the other sciences comes very naturally to me and thinking about the best way to explain something is a challenge I always get a big kick out of.”

Strogatz joined Cornell’s faculty in 1994 and is the director of the Center for Applied Mathematics. With an interest in biological mathematics, Strogatz has since branched into various fields including the nonlinear dynamics of language death, the role of crowd synchronization in the wobbling of London’s Millennium Bridge on its opening day, and the “six degrees of separation” problem.

The weekly series will end mid-May, but Strogatz said he may write more articles depending on what The Times needs. For now, he said he is enjoying reaching new audiences from an adult perspective and providing them with a better understanding of the subject.

“It’s different than writing a book because I can use graphics, audio, and video recordings,” he said. “It’s a whole new medium and it’s interesting to explore what you can do with that.”

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that Andrew Rosenthal was op-ed editor at The Times with whom Prof. Strogatz worked. In fact, it was David Shipley. The story has been updated to reflect this change.

Original Author: Dan Robbins