"Mathematics as currently practiced is a delicate interplay between monastic contemplation and blowing stuff up with dynamite."
-- Jordan Ellenberg in "How Not To Be Wrong"
"He’s really somewhere between a mathematician and a stand-up comedian, and to be honest I don’t know which one he’s better at, although he is a deeply talented mathematician."
-- blogger Cathy O'Neil on Jordan Ellenberg
I feel like I'm the last person on the planet to interview Jordan Ellenberg :-( so busy has he been since his book, "How Not To Be Wrong" appeared (...but better last, than never!). As a fan of his Web writing I'd requested an interview months before his book was released, and, luckily since most of my questions don't pertain specifically to the book, they still have at least some freshness, despite his recent whirlwind tour and almost over-exposure!
For any who missed it, I reviewed Dr. Ellenberg's book a month ago, and already pegged it as likely my favorite math book for all 2014. Anyway, hopefully you can learn a little bit more about the young Wisconsin professor/author/blogger from his answers below:
1) To start, can you tell readers how your interest in math began, and when you knew you wanted to pursue it professionally?
I was interested in math from the time I was a very small child. (I think there’s a prevailing stereotype that all mathematicians show a special interest in math very early, but that really doesn’t seem to be the case.) I always thought I was going to be a mathematician, but I tried other things. Whenever I wasn’t doing math, I found I missed math. Having this knowledge was very useful!
2) You have a book out… tell us what it's all about, and do you foresee more books in the future (you also wrote a novel about a decade ago; any more fiction in your future, as well)?
The book is called "How Not To Be Wrong" and it makes the case that mathematical thinking is naturally woven into all of our thinking. We shouldn’t think of it as an alien habit we have to acquire, but a pre-installed part of our cognitive toolkit, which everybody can get better at using. I hope a lot of people who don’t ordinarily buy math books will read it — but I think it has a lot to offer to people who know a lot of math as well! I certainly learned a lot writing it.
3) From what I've read, you were a child prodigy… how difficult was it growing up, being so far ahead of your own peer group, and do you have siblings that were similarly gifted? …also, any other mathematicians in the family?
I know lots of people who found it very difficult to be academically advanced as a kid. I didn’t. I didn’t find that being many grade levels ahead in math made it harder for me to relate socially to other children, and I never had any desire to leave school and go to college early. In fact, I used to think it was a bad idea to do that; but now, as an adult, I know lots of people who started college very young and are glad they did. My parents are both statisticians, which made things easier; they knew very well what I needed to learn and where the resources were for learning those things.
4) Up to this point in your life what math-related achievements are you most proud of?
You’re always proudest of the things that push you to learn new things and acquire new skills. I have two big interdisciplinary projects going on, with a bunch of collaborators, a project in “stable topology” and a project in “FI-modules” — both mix number theory (my main specialty) with other subjects that I’ve had to learn a lot about as I go. I tend to be more attracted to projects that involve things I don’t know how to do. The book itself is like that; I’ve done a lot of popular writing but I didn’t know what would happen when I tried to do it at length. And I’m pleased with the results!
5) Your math blog is titled "Quomodocumque" -- if you're not too sick of answering this question ;-), want to tell readers where that title comes from and why you chose it?
It means “in whatever fashion” and is meant to suggest a sort of eclecticism. I went to a history-of-math talk that I didn’t understand at all, but at some point there was a slide of a Latin mathematical manuscript, which contained that word, and I said to myself, well, even if I get nothing else out of this talk, that’s a hell of a word.
6) What have been some of your favorite posts over the time you've been blogging… either your own personal favorites, or ones that generated a lot of reader interest?
Thanks to counter stats I know exactly what people like to read and what they don’t. Nobody cares about the Orioles. Lots of people like math posts, including technical math posts. Posts about politics and controversies within the profession are by far the most popular: hiring practices, women in math, professional ethics, etc.
One of my most popular posts was an argument against a paper published in Science, which I think falls victim to an interesting mathematical mistake:
I also like this older one, about a math puzzle said to have been used as a Google recruitment tool;
7) What are your favorite digital resources for assisting in teaching mathematics?
People love to make fun of it, but Wikipedia is an immensely valuable resource for mathematics. I assume all the math pages are written by procrastinating graduate students. They’re very good. Of course, the more technically minded blogs, especially Terry Tao’s, do a huge amount of work at the research level, spreading news not only about new theorems but about new ideas, techniques, and strategies. MathOverflow is wonderful for people who already know enough to ask and answer questions there.
[Well, that's interesting/unexpected to hear... I've always been impressed with Wikipedia's math pages, but was almost afraid to say so, since it seems uncouth to say out loud! :-/ thus, good to hear the confirmation.]
8) You write for Slate and various other media outlets… if someone isn't familiar with your writing, can you point to 2-3 (Web-accessible) pieces that are a good introduction to your writing?
Here’s a recent piece from the Wall Street Journal, drawn in part from the book, where I talk more than there’s room for here about the idea of genius as applied to Ramanujan, Hilbert, Minkowski, and football.
This old piece from the Believer, a joint review of books about the Riemann hypothesis and books about mountain climbing, is probably my favorite of the magazine pieces I’ve written. The crazy idea of the piece is entirely due to my editor, Heidi Julavits, who somehow knew it would work.
[This is a long, but very interesting piece for those specifically interested in the Riemann Hypothesis, or who have read the books involved.]
This one’s not about math at all, but about my son and baseball.
Thanks for the responses Dr. Ellenberg! Jordan has been all over the place of late, both physically and in cyberspace, so I won't attempt to give all those links here, but Google him if the links above make you thirsty for more! And by all means buy his book -- I'm not exaggerating when I say it is one of the best pieces of mathematical writing (for a general audience) I've ever seen... amazing for a first-time effort. As I recently wrote, it made my heart feel good to walk inside a bookstore and see TWO attractive MATH books (Jordan's and Alex Bellos') sitting right up front on the bestseller table greeting people's eyes (and hopefully, with high Hawking Index scores! -- see this Ellenberg WSJ piece).