**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 -*

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*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).

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**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!
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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):

http://wildaboutmath.com/2013/02/22/erica-klarreich-inspired-by-math-22/

Also, another transcribed interview with Erica here:

http://www.theopennotebook.com/2014/09/30/erica-klarreich-profiles-an-award-winning-mathematician/

http://wildaboutmath.com/2013/02/22/erica-klarreich-inspired-by-math-22/

Also, another transcribed interview with Erica here:

http://www.theopennotebook.com/2014/09/30/erica-klarreich-profiles-an-award-winning-mathematician/

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