Prof. Steven Strogatz, mathematics, researches dynamical systems applied to physics, biology and social science, and also enjoys finding ways to make everyone love and appreciate the role of mathematics in daily life. Strogatz’s newest endeavor— a new podcast hosted by Quanta Magazine: “The Joy of Wh(y)”— aims to advance that passion.
The podcast, created this year, is an interview-based show, which focuses on discussing big, sometimes unanswered, questions such as where does gravity come from or how life could evolve from cyanide.
The podcast brings on leading experts and scientists, such as Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist. These experts attempt to answer broad, essential questions in a comprehensible way for his audience, who range from college students to adults commuting to work.
“I’m all about the questions helping people love the problem,” Strogatz said. “You’ll know something about a big mystery by the end of the show.”
His podcast allows him to practice science communication, which he says the Cornell community should further emphasize.
“Communication is essential in every walk of life—and it’s fun—I feel like we’re giving gifts,” Strogatz said. “There are so many fascinating ideas that scientists and mathematicians have come up with.”
Throughout his teaching career, Strogatz has applied his communication skills in the classroom.
“As a teacher, I think my main job is to help people fall in love with the subject,” Strogatz said. “If I can get you to fall in love with the question and so that you’re really curious about it, you will do the homework, read the textbook and put in the time to rewire your brain.”
However, Strogatz wasn’t always set on being a math professor. He gained an interest in science writing at a young age, having a high school English teacher support him on his path.
Excited to pursue this career, he applied to various internships. However, he was met with strong resistance from The New York Times in particular.
“They insulted me by saying, not only am I not getting a job, but it’s presumptuous to even ask,” Strogatz said.
Even after the harsh rejection, he maintained his interest in science writing and communication, although his time was preoccupied with research in applied mathematics.
Strogatz said his breakthrough moment was when he was invited to write an article for Scientific American on coupled oscillators and biological synchronization.
Strogatz enjoyed writing so much that he published a book titled Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order shortly after. In his book, Strogatz delved into the chaos and synchronization of the world, from pacemakers that hearts depend on to the flashing of fireflies.
Around the time he published the book, Strogatz also wrote a series of articles for The New York Times—the publication that previously rejected him.
“[Writing] was like being a teacher except now I could teach a worldwide audience, but people are not used to reading math in the newspaper,” Strogatz said.
Strogatz defined this as a key moment in his career as a communicator, leading him to publish another book in 2012: The Joy of X where he shares everyday occurrences of math—such as calculus, shapes, and numbers—seen in pop culture and current events.
Now, 10 years later, he is a visiting professor at the National Museum of Mathematics in New York City, helping the public understand the various layers of mathematics. In this position, he hosts outreach events such as “Math and the Movies” and “Ask a Mathematician,” which introduces audiences of all ages to how math can serve as a potential career path and is part of everyday life.
He hopes to continue his communication journey with his podcast and inspire the next generation of scientists, mathematicians and all those excited to find answers to frequently asked questions.