...a companion blog to "Math-Frolic," specifically for interviews, book reviews, weekly-linkfests, and longer posts or commentary than usually found at the Math-Frolic site.

"Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty – a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show." ---Bertrand Russell (1907) Rob Gluck

"I have come to believe, though very reluctantly, that it [mathematics] consists of tautologies. I fear that, to a mind of sufficient intellectual power, the whole of mathematics would appear trivial, as trivial as the statement that a four-legged animal is an animal." ---Bertrand Russell (1957)

******************************************************************** Rob Gluck

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Natalie Wolchover... From Tiger Zoologist to Physics Writer

Math-Frolic Interview #28

"Distrust of scientists and fear of global cataclysm are both on the rise, and that’s partly attributable to how much scary and conflicting information there is on the Internet. In my opinion, the best way to earn readers’ trust is to slow down a bit: to spend more time learning the science we’re explaining in our articles and write more in-depth (but still accessible) pieces."
-- Natalie Wolchover, in an older interview

Another sort of 'first' for this interview series... I'm guessing that most math enthusiasts, enjoy a good physics-read from time-to-time -- so today a treat, and divergence from my usual mathematician interviews, as I greet Natalie Wolchover, one of the best physics writers around for a general audience. I've been enjoying Natalie's writings, in Quanta Magazine, for awhile now, and always fun to learn more about writers I enjoy, but know little about. If you're not already familiar with her byline, be sure to watch for it in the future, as well as go back and read some of her past pieces, that make current-day physics accessible.
All Natalie's Quanta articles are here:

and older LiveScience pieces by her here:

...she tweets at: @nattyover


1)  When did your interest in science, and more specifically physics, begin?  Also, you have a B.S. in physics, and have now written about the field for some time... do you ever get an itch to return to college for a PhD. or otherwise be more involved in applied physics, rather than just reporting on it?

I read A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking when I was 13 — the 10-year anniversary edition was prominently placed in bookstores at the time — and I was completely and totally drawn in. (When I read it now I think I couldn’t have possibly understood very much back then, but I suppose mere exposure to the ideas sufficed.) My career plans switched from tiger zoologist to physicist. And that lasted until another sudden change of plans 10 years later.

I have a bachelor’s in physics from Tufts, where I did interesting research in the nonlinear optics lab of Fio Omenetto, and then I entered a Ph.D. program at Berkeley. But over the course of one sleepless night during my first year of grad school I realized it wasn’t right for me and that I should do science writing instead. It’s strange because I hadn’t once considered science writing before. I dropped out of Berkeley the very next day. Present-day me is shocked that I would do something so rash, but it felt right and as it turns out, it was. No, I never think of going back for a Ph.D. I’m learning much more physics this way. And I think I contribute more to the field by writing. Even experts sometimes need distillation into stories in order to understand, themselves, what’s happening.

2)  If I understand your past correctly, you came into freelancing and staff-writing essentially through starting a long-ago blog; i.e. not through the once-upon-a-time traditional route of a journalism or writing degree followed by interning, and climbing a corporate ladder. Is there anything especially pro-or-con you'd say about the path you've taken, or about your current career? Or, anything you'd do differently if you had it to do over again?

Yes, when I dropped out of grad school I started a daily blog and tutored freshman physics students to get by. I then moved from Berkeley to New York for an internship at Science Illustrated and Popular Science. I went from the internship to my first staff writer job and from there to Quanta where I am now. Honestly if I knew before I decided to switch careers how many professional science writers in my generation (especially in New York) went through the NYU science journalism program or another of the big programs, I may not have believed I could make it work. Fortunately, I was blissfully ignorant and overconfident.

[It is wonderful that the Web has made this alternative path possible for many.]

3)  Being more into math than physics, one of my favorite pieces of yours was a 2013 Quanta article on new approaches to infinity, focusing on what's called "V= ultimate L" versus "Martin's maximum" (related to "forcing axioms"). Just wondering if you've done any follow-up work to that piece since? Also curious, if you've ever explored Freeman Dyson's proposed linkage between math and physics via the Riemann Hypothesis, quasi-crystals, and atomic structure?

That piece was really interesting to report and write. I’m so much more familiar with the landscape of physics than math, and as a consequence I can put myself more in the readers shoes while doing research and interviews for a math story. Possibly I come to understand the work at the level that a reader would also like to understand it, but no more, and this makes the writing process more straightforward. In physics, I go a bit beyond what I ultimately want to explain, so there’s a process of scaling back. But on the other hand, that power to see the deeper picture helps me recognize important details and their implications, so overall there’s a benefit to having more expertise (though still very little in my case).

Anyhow, I haven’t followed up with Hugh Woodin about his progress on V = ultimate L, nor have I explored further the commonality between the Riemann zeta function and random matrices, which I spoke with Dyson about. I covered a subject related to the latter more recently, though — the universality of a statistical curve called the Tracy-Widom distribution, which arises in several places in mathematics, and its relationship to the physics of phase transitions. I’m drawn to topics that illuminate the “unreasonable” (to quote Wigner) link between physics and mathematics.

4)  Do you largely select/propose the topics you cover as a staffer at Quanta, or are you assigned most of your stories? 

I find and pitch almost all my stories. Topics just materialize, I think, when you closely follow the developments in a particular field of study. I don’t have time to cover everything going on in physics that I would like to — especially topics in condensed matter physics, which are complex and very hard to do justice to.

5)  Among all the articles you've written, do you have a couple of Web-accessible favorites?

My Quanta articles that seem to have resonated the most with the public are the one on the discovery of the amplituhedron from September 2013 and A New Physics Theory of Life from January 2014. Others I like are this scientific adventure tale about a quasicrystal meteorite and a feature I wrote for PopSci.com back when I was interning there on the mystery of the Pioneer anomaly. They’re some of the more narrative-driven pieces I’ve done and I find those enjoyable and challenging.

6)  There's a lot of emphasis these days on increasing the number of women in STEM fields. Is there anything, based on your own experience, you'd want to pass along to females considering STEM careers? Or are you directly involved in any efforts to encourage women in STEM fields?

I’m not involved in any outreach efforts of that kind, though I care about the issue quite a bit. I also don’t feel qualified to pass along advice since I count myself among women who dropped out of STEM fields. The choice was right for me, but I do wish more women were actually doing research, for their perspective and their good influence. I think a lot about why the choice was right for me not to do scientific research, and what (if anything) it has to do with my gender, but I don’t have any pearls of wisdom about it and don’t want to generalize.

7)  It's amazing (and heartening) to me how many popular books on current-day physics keep coming out -- and these are NOT easy-reads for most lay people. I usually ask interviewees for their likes or recommendations among math reads, but in your case I'll ask what physics/cosmology books or writers you'd recommend to lay readers? (Though you're welcome to recommend some math-reads, if you care to do that as well.)
And, any thoughts of doing a book yourself in the future?

I really enjoy books by the sages of physics. I loved Albert Einstein’s short book for lay readers called Relativity: The Special and General Theory, and Erwin Schrödinger’s What is Life? For some less conventional choices, Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia beautifully integrates scientific ideas into fiction. Going even farther in that direction is my very favorite science writing, the short stories called Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino. As for math, it’s incredible to me that David Foster Wallace wrote Everything and More about Georg Cantor and the history of infinity. What a treasure.

[...Yes, something I just re-posted about recently myself.]

I am beginning to write a book, yes! It’s in the early stages, though, so I’m not ready to talk about it.

8)  Okay, to wrap up, I'll try a new experiment... posing a question I always loved from an old "This American Life" episode... ;-)
If you could possess just one of the following two 'superpowers' which would you choose and why?:
a) the ability, at will, to make yourself invisible, or
b) the ability, at will, to fly like a bird???

[As I remember from the TAL episode, most people are able to answer this surprisingly quickly, without needing to give it much thought, but also people tend to divide somewhat down-the-middle on it.]

(b), of course! I can't believe it’s even close.


Thanks for participating here Natalie! I think anyone who reads you will be happy you made the decision to become a science writer, and look forward to a book in your future.

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