The Weekly Newsmagazine of Science
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June 12, 1999
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After nearly 18 years at Science News, I'm taking a break from my weekly routine of reporting, writing, and editing for the magazine. Starting this week, I will be at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI) in Berkeley, Calif., to serve as "journalist in residence" for the next three months.
Established in 1982, MSRI is an independent organization on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley (http://www.msri.org). It functions as a meeting place for mathematicians from all over the world. This highly interactive marketplace of mathematical ideas reinforces the impression that mathematical research is far more a communal enterprise than a solitary pursuit (see Groups, Graphs, and Paul Erdos, June 15, 1996).
Each year, the institute hosts a variety of conferences and workshops. It also features several mathematics research programs devoted to selected topics, each lasting a semester or a year, that bring together mathematicians, scientists, engineers, and other researchers. The program just ending, for example, was devoted to random matrices and their applications.
Most of the funding for MSRI has come from the National Science Foundation (NSF). With its NSF award scheduled to run out in the year 2000, the institute recently took part in a fiercely competitive review process, which attracted 16 proposals, to obtain new funding.
Last month, the National Science Board approved the expenditure of up to $17 million to continue MSRI's operations for an additional 5 years. The Institute for Mathematics and its Applications (IMA) in Minneapolis (http://www.ima.umn.edu/) also obtained renewed funding. A new center focusing on applied mathematics is to be located at the University of California, Los Angeles.
One important component of MSRI's efforts involves communicating mathematics to the general public. When Andrew Wiles of Princeton University announced his proof of Fermat's Last Theorem in 1993, MSRI promptly organized a highly successful Fermat Fest, held at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, to explore issues and ideas crucial to the theorem and its proof. This February, the institute hosted a multimedia program featuring playwright Tom Stoppard, who discussed mathematical concepts in his play Arcadia (see Math in Arcadia, Feb. 1, 1997) with Robert Osserman, MSRI special projects director.
Last October, MSRI organized a three-day conference on "Mathematics and the Media," which brought together a diverse group of mathematicians and science journalists. Meeting discussions vividly illustrated the difficulties involved in translating interesting mathematical research into terms understandable and meaningful to reporters and the general public. Mathematicians gained a better appreciation of the obstacles and deadlines that journalists face in writing their articles, and journalists obtained glimpses of some cutting-edge mathematics.
I have long argued that mathematicians ought to make a greater effort to communicate their ideas and research effectively not only to the general public but also to their own mathematical colleagues and to scientists and engineers. I have attended far too many mathematics lectures where even mathematicians quickly lose the talk's thread and begin to nod off, and I have glanced at too many research papers that fail to explain why a given topic is worth pursuing or to put the material in a broader context.
In a 1991 essay, I wrote: "Research worth publishing should also be worth communicating. There is room in the mathematical literature for at least a small concession to a nonmathematical audience that may actually find the work of interest. And if mathematics is more than just a private game...then mathematicians must take some responsibility for communicating their ideas in ways that convey the meaning of their work to broader audiences."
MSRI's new journalist-in-residence program (http://www.msri.org/activities/outreach/journalist) represents one effort to improve communication of mathematics.
"The recent history of mathematics overflows with remarkable stories of mathematical accomplishments that have never been told, largely because mathematicians have never mastered the art of telling them and because the press and the public have never been invited in to know the enchantment of mathematics," Hugo Rossi states in MSRI's announcement. "MSRI is well-situated to lead the way in breaking these patterns, both in the public's perception of mathematics and in the mathematician's ability to engage the public."
So here I am, eager to learn some new math.
While I'm in California, I will also be giving several public lectures, including one at the Exploratium in San Francisco (http://www.exploratorium.edu) and one at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing on Aug. 4 (see http://www.mbari.org/itd/seminars/ for location, time, and other details).
Along the way, I'll provide weekly MathTrek glimpses of the mathematics that I encounter during my stay at MSRI and in my travels throughout the Bay area.
Comments are welcome. Please send messages to Ivars Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ivars Peterson is the mathematics/computers writer and online editor at Science News. He is the author of *The Mathematical Tourist, Islands of Truth, Newton's Clock, Fatal Defect, and The Jungles of Randomness. His current work in progress is Fragments of Infinity: A Kaleidoscope of Mathematics and Art (to be published in 1999 by Wiley).
MATHEMUSEMENTS: Look for math-related articles by Ivars Peterson every month in the children's general-interest magazine Muse (http://www.musemag.com) from the publishers of Cricket and Smithsonian magazine.
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