The investigative mathematical journalist
I’ve been out of academic math a few years now, but I still really enjoy talking to mathematicians. They are generally nice and nerdy and utterly earnest about their field and the questions in their field and why they’re interesting.
In fact, I enjoy these conversations more now than when I was an academic mathematician myself. Partly this is because, as a professional, I was embarrassed to ask people stupid questions, because I thought I should already know the answers. I wouldn’t have asked someone to explain motives and the Hodge Conjecture in simple language because honestly, I’m pretty sure I’d gone to about 4 lectures as a graduate student explaining all of this and if I could just remember the answer I would feel smarter.
But nowadays, having left and nearly forgotten that kind of exquisite anxiety that comes out of trying to appear superhuman, I have no problem at all asking someone to clarify something. And if they give me an answer that refers to yet more words I don’t know, I’ll ask them to either rephrase or explain those words.
In other words, I’m becoming something of an investigative mathematical journalist. And I really enjoy it. I think I could do this for a living, or at least as a large project.
What I have in mind is the following: I go around the country (I’ll start here in New York) and interview people about their field. I ask them to explain the “big questions” and what awesomeness would come from actually having answers. Why is their field interesting? How does it connect to other fields? What is the end goal? How would achieving it inform other fields?
Then I’d write them up like columns. So one column might be “Hodge Theory” and it would explain the main problem, the partial results, and the connections to other theories and fields, or another column might be “motives” and it would explain the underlying reason for inventing yet another technology and how it makes things easier to think about.
Obviously I could write a whole book on a given subject, but I wouldn’t. My audience would be, primarily, other mathematicians, but I’d write it to be readable by people who have degrees in other quantitative fields like physics or statistics.
Even more obviously, every time I chose a field and a representative to interview and every time I chose to stop there, I’d be making in some sense a political choice, which would inevitably piss someone off, because I realize people are very sensitive to this. This is presuming anybody every read my surveys in the first place, which is a big if.
Even so, I think it would be a contribution to mathematics. I actually think a pretty serious problem with academic math is that people from disparate fields really have no idea what each other is doing. I’m generalizing, of course, and colloquiums do tend to address this, when they are well done and available. But for the most part, let’s face it, people are essentially only rewarded for writing stuff that is incredibly “insider” for their field. that only a few other experts can understand. Survey of topics, when they’re written, are generally not considered “research” but more like a public service.
And by the way, this is really different from the history of mathematics, in that I have never really cared about who did what, and I still don’t (although I’m not against name a few people in my columns). The real goal here is to end up with a more or less accurate map of the active research areas in mathematics and how they are related. So an enormous network, with various directed edges of different types. In fact, writing this down makes me want to build my map as I go, an annotated visualization to pair with the columns.
Also, it obviously doesn’t have to be me doing all this: I’m happy to make it an open-source project with a few guidelines and version control. But I do want to kick it off because I think it’s a neat idea.
A few questions about my mathematical journalism plan.
- Who’s going to pay me to do this?
- Where should I publish it?
If the answers are “nobody” and “on mathbabe.org” then I’m afraid it won’t happen, at least by me. Any ideas?
One more thing. This idea could just as well be done for another field altogether, like physics or biology. Are there models of people doing something like that in those fields that you know about? Or is there someone actually already doing this in math?