Michael Wenye Li / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Math professor Steven Strogatz hopes to share his joy for math with his students.

March 29, 2017

CORNELL CLOSE-UPS | Professor Shares Beauty of Math with Students Traumatized by Subject

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Prof. Steven Strogatz, math, is leading the charge against students traumatized by mathematics through what he calls his “public communications” of the beauty of math in his TED Talks, in a New York Times series and in his passionate teaching.

“A lot of kids come out not only disliking math, but feeling traumatized by it,” he said. “It’s [a] shame that we so often manage to turn them off, I don’t know quite why it happens, but it does.”

Though Strogatz was admittedly not one of these students with such disdain for mathematics, it was the exhilaration of solving one challenging geometry proof in high school that sealed his math career.

To this day, he still remembers that fateful problem: prove that if two angle bisectors of a triangle have the same length, it’s an isosceles triangle.

“I just started thinking about it, and I couldn’t do it, and that freaked me out a little bit, because I could always do any math problem that any teacher asked if I just kept at it long enough,” he said. “In French class, they would be asking us to conjugate verbs, and I would be thinking about the angle bisectors.”

Furthermore, his teacher, Mr. Johnson, who first posed the problem to his entire precalculus class, had admitted that he himself did not know the solution.

“He was our most impressive math teacher at the school. He had a beard, he went to MIT, he just seemed like a cut above the other math teachers,” Strogatz said. “And so for Mr. Johnson to say that he didn’t know how to solve this triangle problem — I never heard a teacher say that, or admit something like that.”

These were the days before the internet, so the answer could not easily be researched. After about six months of pondering over the question, Strogatz finally figured it out and went over to Johnson’s house to show him his solution.

During an interview Strogatz pulled out his old high school math notebook, which included a note from 1974 that Mr. Johnson had written to the dean of Strogatz’s high school.

“I’ve been throwing out a difficult geometry theorem to classes and bright math students for 15 years and no one has proved it. Steve came up with a clear and relatively simple proof,” Johnson’s note read. “Congratulations, he has real talent.”

From that point, Strogatz began to draft and attempt to solve his own questions, leading him toward widespread recognition for his research.

On topics ranging from complex nonlinear dynamics to small world networks, Strogatz said that choosing a research topic is an “emotional thing” because of the commitment and sacrifice it requires.

“It’s another relationship that’s going to go on for years: you and your book,” he said. “You better really want to write that book. It’s hard, so I just have to feel some sort of fever to write something, like I just have to tell this certain story or I have to explain this.”

Currently, Strogatz is working on a book that aims to convey the story of calculus, because he feels that most people who have taken calculus do not fully understand its purpose nor its beauty.

“I see it as this fantastic two thousand year story of great creativity and struggle and drama and enormous scientific importance in changing the world in a lot of ways,” he said. “The kind of stuff I want to get across in the book [is] that calculus is not some pinheaded thing that’s just for the physicists and engineers, but is a big part of culture, and when you start to see that, it makes it more interesting.”

It was the publication of his very first book geared toward the general public, exploring how and why systems spontaneously synchronized, that opened up exciting new opportunities for Strogatz.

One “very nice, out-of-the-blue opportunity” for Strogatz was the chance to fly out to California to give a TED Talk presentation. He said that he had never even heard of the program since this was before it was popular on the internet.

“They had guys filming it and I didn’t really think much of it, and now it’s on YouTube or the web and lots of people have watched it, hundreds of thousands of people have watched it, and I wish I had prepared it better because I really was just improvising,” he said.

However, Strogatz said the most exciting thing he ever did in his public communication of math was writing a series for the New York Times over the course of 15 weeks in the summer of 2010.

In his Math 1300: Mathematical Explorations class, Strogatz tries to foster an appreciation for the subject by relating mathematical concepts to other fields that students might be interested in, such as politics or music.

“The goal [of the class] is not to teach a lot of hard math, but more to teach why anyone would love math, what’s beautiful about it or fun, which a lot of students have never had.”

Although personally very passionate about math, Strogatz admitted that he does not think knowing math is particularly useful or practically important for the average person.

“I don’t think it really matters that much if people don’t know math,” he said. “You can get through your life perfectly well without knowing much math.”

Instead, he believes people should learn math to better analyze what is going on in current events and be part of the conversation. It is enriching to human life in the same that Mozart’s musical works or Toni Morrison’s writings, Strogatz explained.

“I feel like that’s the point, that if I get someone to appreciate math who’s never going to use it, they’re now let in on the fun,” he said.

After spending his undergraduate years at Princeton and graduate school at Harvard, and then even teaching at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Strogatz was pulled to Cornell where he has remained for 23 years.

“People here are just as smart and hard-working as those places, but we don’t have the egomaniacs you find at those places,” he said. “I just find it very refreshing, how humble and open and friendly everybody is, students and professors.”

Despite all his external success, Strogatz said what he really loves is being a teacher at Cornell.

“It’s been an interesting journey, but in my heart, my main thing is still to be a teacher here at Cornell, that’s what I really care about,” he said.