...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, April 12, 2015

Erica Klarreich... Journalist/Mathematician/Ray Smullyan Fan

Math-Frolic Interview #30

"A mathematician before I became a full-time journalist, I try to convey the essence of complex mathematical ideas to non-mathematicians, and give them a sense of the beauty and depth of mathematics.

"At the same time, I also enjoy plunging into topics far from my mathematical roots, and have written about fields such as economics, computer science, medicine, and biology -- often as these fields relate to mathematics, but often simply for their own sake."  -- Erica Klarreich (from her Web homepage)

After I interviewed science/math writer Natalie Wolchover a bit ago, it occurred to me I should interview her Quanta colleague, Erica Klarreich, who actually specializes even more-so in mathematical pieces.  I imagine most readers here are likely familiar with Erica's excellent writings, but if not, you can check them out HERE (or via some of the links below).


1) How and when did your interest in mathematics begin? And when did you know you would pursue mathematics professionally?

I grew up in a math family, so I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in math. My grandfather and my father were math professors, and my mother was a high school math teacher before she had children. I have happy memories of us reading Raymond Smullyan’s books of logic puzzles around the dining room table (now I read them with my own son!). My parents certainly didn’t force math down our throats, but it did feel like the family business. My older sister and I both ended up getting PhDs in math, although my younger sister said a polite “Thanks, but no thanks.”

[ahhh, another Ray Smullyan fan... in your honor I re-ran one of my favorite puzzles from him over at Math-Frolic on Friday.]

2)  Though math is your specialty, you've written across the board on many scientific subjects -- do you just have a lot of disparate interests, or is there some thread that unites all the topics you explore and write on?

I really like writing about areas of science other than mathematics, because I learn so much in the process (although that’s true of my math articles as well). I’d say, though, that most of my articles do have a math slant. Math is the language of science, which is what makes it such a great specialty—I can use it as a springboard to explore such a wide range of topics.

3)  In that same vein, it seems to me you write about some of the most fascinating, perhaps deep and dare I say almost mystical, aspects of mathematics... do you see it that way, or how would you characterize the subjects you're drawn to?

Actually, some of my favorite topics to write about, such as game theory and theoretical computer science, are quite pragmatic. But it’s true that when I’m writing a pure math story, I look for story elements that I guess you could describe as “mystical.” I think people read pure math stories for the same reason they read about, say, astronomy — because our explorations of the Platonic world of mathematics say something fundamental about who we are as human beings. When mathematicians push past the border of what we previously knew about prime numbers, say, or discover a connection between two seemingly distant parts of the Platonic world, they’re telling us not just about mathematics but also about ourselves, and our relationship to truth and beauty.

4)  What was the subject of your doctoral work in mathematics, and at what point did you decide you'd rather be a math/science journalist than a professor or applied mathematician?

I did my PhD in three-dimensional hyperbolic geometry, which I later got to write about in one of my favorite articles for Quanta Magazine

I still love hyperbolic geometry (although my knowledge has gotten pretty rusty), but already in graduate school I was starting to question whether the academic life was right for me. Hyperbolic geometry is a field that sits on the cusp of several other big fields of mathematics, so there was a huge amount of mathematics to learn, and I never felt that I understood those related fields enough to be able to make the deep connections that would lead to really exciting new mathematics. I probably could have worked in some small corner of the field and done decent work, but I knew that wouldn’t feel meaningful to me. Still, I didn’t know what else I could do, so I finished my PhD and went on to a three-year position at the University of Michigan.

During the years at Michigan, I started reading a lot of popular science writing, which for some reason I had never done much before, and it occurred to me that writing about science must be one of the coolest jobs around. I had always liked to write, so I started digging around online, and came upon the website of the science writing program at UC Santa Cruz. At the time, there were a bunch of questions on the website along the lines of: Do you like explaining your research to friends even more than doing the research? (Yes!) Do you enjoy taking in the full sweep of science more than specializing narrowly? (Yes!!) Were you one of those weird people who actually enjoyed writing term papers in college? (Yes!!!) As the number of exclamation points in my answers grew, I realized that I had found a possible new career. The Santa Cruz program is (or at least back then it was) the only science writing program aimed primarily at scientists, not journalists, so it was perfect for me. I applied, and at the end of my three years at Michigan, I went there.

5)  How long does it generally take you to write the typical article you do for, say, Quanta (if you can even generalize), and how many editors/fact-checkers must review it before we readers see it in publication?

There’s a lot of variety. I discovered early in my career that I don’t like to write news stories. Those often take just a day or two to complete, and I always found it stressful trying to fit in all my interviews that quickly. Besides, I just like going deeper than a news story permits. So I almost always write feature articles. Occasionally, these can be newsy, in which case we try to turn them around quickly. For example, a couple of years ago I wrote for Quanta about some breaking news connected to the twin primes conjecture , and my recollection is that we turned that story around in just a week. What’s more common for me is to spend several weeks researching and writing a story (or sometimes longer than that, if I’m working on several stories in parallel). Once I’ve written my draft, what happens next depends on the publication. Pretty much all the places I write for do a top edit and then a copy edit; some use fact-checkers, some ask me to fact-check the article myself, and some show the article to a panel of reviewers.

6)  Among all the articles you've written, do you have a few Web-accessible favorites you'd point people to who aren't familiar with your work? 

The Quanta article about the twin primes conjecture really resonated with readers, partly because the question of patterns in the prime numbers is so compelling, and also because it was an amazing story of an unknown mathematician making good. Another Quanta story that attracted a lot of readers was my profile of Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman to win the Fields Medal.

I’ve also written some fun pieces lately for Nautilus: one about optical illusions and one about how to divide things fairly.

7)  What popular (or technical) math writers do you especially like to read? And what are some of your other main interests/hobbies/activities?

I’m a big fan of Steven Strogatz’ writing, and I really liked his math series in the New York Times. I also greatly enjoyed Jordan Ellenberg’s book, How Not to be Wrong. I have to confess, though, that when I’m reading for pleasure, I’m more likely to pick up a novel than a popular science book. I’m in a book group that specializes in nineteenth-century English novels; we just finished reading Martin Chuzzlewit, which is a giant doorstop of a book, but my idea of fun!

I like solving cryptic crossword puzzles, which are crosswords in which the entries are clued by wordplay instead of ordinary definitions. Two of my friends are the creators of the cryptic crossword that appears weekly in The Nation magazine, and a small group of us meet over breakfast to solve their puzzles before they go into print and critique the clues.

During the last two years I’ve been working on a passion project: a children’s novel that I’m writing together with my younger sister. It’s been huge fun, and now we’re getting ready to start the submission process.

...Good luck with the children's novel; that can be a hard genre to break into, and I often don't fully understand what makes one children's novel a huge success, and another one less so.

8)  Finally, you and Natalie Wolchover are two of a great band of writers for Quanta Magazine -- just curious if you guys all know each other well, socialize, collaborate at all, or do you all lead separate lives, just writing for the same outlet?

We lead separate lives, unfortunately. I’m just a freelancer for Quanta, and since I live in Berkeley and Quanta’s offices are in New York City, I’ve never actually met any of the Quanta staff face-to-face, even the ones with whom I work quite closely. They have very nice voices, though!

Thanks Erica; we're fortunate to have writers like you putting out such a great variety of in-depth, mathematical content on the Web on a regular basis.
And if you want to hear Erica's voice, Sol Lederman interviewed her for his podcast series about 2 years ago (she covers much of the same ground I asked about above, in even more detail):
Also, another transcribed interview with Erica here:

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