...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 22, 2015

Samantha Oestreicher... "Social" Mathematician

Math-Frolic Interview #29

"Math is everywhere. Sometimes we choose to obsess over it (Bills) or ignore it (Debt) but I believe we should not obsess or ignore. Fruit and Vegetables should be a part of everyone’s diet. So too should Math."
-- Samantha Oestreicher (from her blog)

Evelyn Lamb introduced me to Samantha Oestreicher's "Social Mathematics" blog awhile back; a blog about the "interaction between mathematics and the modern day world." If, like me, you were unfamiliar with the blog, you can check out these posts, that Dr. Oestreicher recommends, as an introduction:

Dr. Oestreicher has an interesting, eclectic background, but I'll let her tell you all about it....


1) Your blog title "Social Mathematics" is interesting, in part, just because those are two words that a lot of people don't associate together. Say a little about what that term, 'social mathematics,' means to you, and what sorts of things you like to cover on your blog?

Social Mathematics is about the interaction between math and the everyday world. This means that Social Mathematics covers a huge breadth of topics. I want to talk about grocery coupon value, board games tactics, weird social norms and more.

I want to provide a lens into mathematical thinking which does not require years of arithmetic to appreciate. I think that we, the community of mathematicians, can do a lot to bridge the gap from the initiated and the uninitiated. This blog is designed to help bridge that gap.

2)  Please tell readers a little about your own path to becoming a professional mathematician... how did your math interest first begin, and when did you know you wanted to pursue it professionally? With a PhD. in Applied Mathematics; what are your future hopes/plans?

The biggest hint that I needed to do math full time was when I was managing a costume shop. I proved to a student that box pleats required a length of fabric equal to 3x where x is the distance over which you want the box pleats to go. The student couldn’t care less about my proof and I realized I was way too technically minded for my current career.

But the moment I knew math was a good place for me was when I found a group of people who got my jokes. I found a culture that appreciates the same values I do: truth, dedication, the existence of right and wrong answers …and nerdy jokes.

I’m currently working in industry in a data science role; I work in supply chain analytics. Supply chains are full of NP-hard problems which are fun to try to optimize. I enjoy working with my colleagues to learn about the processes and try to find the best solution possible in the given allotment of time.

3)  One of your main areas of interest is "modeling whole earth dynamics with regards to climate change" -- Wow, talk about a controversial area these days! I don't even know what best to ask, so I'll leave it very open-ended: What would you most want readers to know about the mathematical aspects of the climate debate?

I most want readers to know 99.99% of all math out there shows that climate change and global warming are both real. It’s really happening and we, as humans, are making serious impacts on our world. I would love nothing more than for everyone to care, learn, mitigate and adapt in defense of our planet.

For a more verbose take on what I think everyone should know, I recommend the two blog posts I wrote for Mathematics of Planet Earth Blog which have links here:

Additionally, I wrote a post for Social Mathematics about why mathematicians need to be involved with climate research:

4)  One intriguing question you pose on your "about" page is this: "Is it morally degrading that we constantly use technology we can’t begin to understand?" 
How do you answer that in your own mind?

In a word: nope! I think the collection of knowledge we have acquired as humans is far too vast for any single person to know it all. I am happy to use this collection of gold, silicon and plastic to connect to the internet and write something for you. So, then the follow-up question I would ask is: why do mathematicians get so upset when other disciplines use our techniques when those people don’t understand the theory behind them?

5)  You also write on your "about" page that, "I hated mathematics in high school, but somewhere along the way I decided I only hated it because everyone else did." I'm always a bit flabbergasted by people who disliked math in high school, yet go on to eventually major in it in college. In fact, you were a theater arts major (math minor) as an undergraduate! -- can you explain how those diverse interests mesh together in your own mind... or are they just two completely separate aspects of your personality and being?

There are some fabulous connections between the theater and mathematics! The top connection in my mind is that both demand intense creativity and boundless resiliency. Both technical theater and math put restrictions on your problem solving kit and ask you to solve the problem anyways.

While I only casually participate in theater and film today, my early focus on storytelling has made me a strong presenter and teacher. I love crafting the story behind my technical work and sharing it with people who are uninitiated into the world of math. I think these two aspects of my personality work together daily to solve problems and communicate my ideas.

There are some wonderful role models who are involved in both theater & math: Hedy Lamarr and Danica McKellar are two of the most famous.

6)  Have you done certain blogposts that stand out as personal favorites or the most fun for you to write? And do you know which posts have been most popular with readers, if they differ from your own favorites?

For my readers, I think the recent favorite has been the trio of posts I wrote about how Tap Dancing is like Climate Change Mathematics. Starts with:

This series is fun to read because it connects my experience in dance from high school to my PhD research in climate change mathematics.

For my writing process, the two posts which are personal favorites are:

a) Why do we play video games for so long? – February 2015
This post was fun because I analyzed data from my friends and I love video games!

b) Winter is Coming… - April 2014
This was great to dig into and talk about weather. 2014 was so cold in Minnesota! And I study climate change-- so this was especially interesting. I had a real passion to try to discover if it actually was colder.

7)  What are some of your own favorite math book reads that you'd recommend to a general reader (and include also any climate change works you'd recommend to a general audience if you like)? And moving outside of math, what are some other favorite reads for you?

For a general reader, I would highly recommend Leonard Mlodinow’s Euclid’s Window: the Story of Geometry from Parallel Lines to Hyperspace as a great read which is full of insightful ideas about the history of math. Also among my favorites are Mario Livio’s The Golden Ratio: The story of Phi, the world’s most astonishing number and Ian Stewart’s Letters to a Young Mathematician.

For non-math books, I really recommend Susan Cain’s Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Her ideas will affect the way I work for many years to come. If you want a fictional book, then I highly recommend Plague of Equals by Don and Joy Oestreicher. Often researchers get reduced to a post-it note but this science thriller has some of the best written research scientists I have ever read. The accuracy and humor of the conversations between scientists is amazing. Lastly, I’d recommend Edward Aguado and James E. Burt’s textbook Understanding Weather and Climate for anyone who wants to understand more about our planet.

8)  Despite advances, mathematics remains a heavily male field of study. Did you experience any special difficulties/pressures being a female in a largely male field, and is there anything special you'd want to say to other females contemplating a career in mathematics (especially anything you wish you'd been told in advance)?

The data show that there are strong gender stereotypes in many fields. Recently I wrote about the Cult of Genius and how women tend to avoid these “genius” fields. Gender still plays a strong role career choice whether you are male or female.

I would suggest to a woman interested in math the same thing that I would suggest to a man interested in female-dominated field: do what you love. Don’t let the prejudice of others determine what you chose to study.

[There's no more time-honored advice than that: 'DO WHAT YOU LOVE'... Indeed! and a fine note to end on.]


Great to get these responses Samantha... one of the things that makes mathematicians fascinating to me is all the different angles they come to their field from (very different from the stereotype people often hold in their heads), and I think your answers here demonstrate that variety and eclecticism.
Thanks for filling us in about yourself and your blog.

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