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Communicating Mathematics in the Media: A Guide

Mathematical scientists can play a crucial role in communicating mathematics and issues in education and research funding to the general media readership. The goals include conveying enthusiasm of mathematics, giving examples of mathematical concepts or applications, showing the beauty of mathematics, offering opinions about issues in mathematics education, advocating for funding basic research, or correcting inaccuracies or misperceptions. "It's important for mathematicians to tell their own story," notes former AMS president David Vogan.

Below are some general guidelines for getting an op-ed or letter to the editoror even a blog post or articlepublished in an online or print newspaper, or magazine.

Checklist for an Op-Ed or Letter to the Editor

checkFollow the newspaper or magazine guidelines (submission method, word count, your contact information)

checkExplain in an introduction why they should publish your piece (importance to their readership, your credentials)

checkWrite on a timely topic

checkBe brief and clear (with no typos or grammatical errors)

checkThank the editor if your op-ed is published

Guidelines for Communicating Mathematics

In "Writing about Math for the Perplexed and the Traumatized," Steven Strogatz (Notices of the AMS, March 2014) writes about the challenges, audiences, and heroes of popularizing science. He recommends:

  1. Illuminate. Give the reader a shiver of pleasure by providing an "Aha!" experience.
  2. Make connections. Tie the math to something the reader already enjoys.
  3. Treat the reader like a friend of yours--a nonmathematical friend. Then you'll instinctively do everything right.

See "Me, Myself and Math" Opinionator Columns, by Steven Strogatz, The New York Times, 2012

Alan Alda, co-founder of the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, encourages scientists to better communicate their work with the general public. His advice:

  1. Distill
  2. Tell a story
  3. Personalize it
  4. Avoid jargon

The National Science Foundation (NSF)'s Science Communication Toolkit for Principal Investigators (PDF or Illustrated Prezi format) provides advice and help to mathematical scientists and public information officers on how best to communicate the excitement and value of NSF-funded research.

Recommended Reading: Op-Eds and Letters to the Editor by Mathematical Scientists

"Mathematicians and Blue Crabs," by Manil Suri, The New York Times, 2 May 2015

"New math needed to explore new networks," by Jordan Ellenberg, Wisconsin State Journal, March 20, 2015

"The real reason why the US is falling behind in math," by Tara Holm, The Boston Globe, February 12, 2015

"Mathematical literacy makes data revolution possible," Moysey Brio, Arizona Daily Star, November 3, 2014

"Solve this math problem: The gender gap," by Francis Su. Los Angeles Times, August 25, 2014

"Don't Teach Math, Coach It," by Jordan Ellenberg, The New York Times, July 24, 2014

"Math can-do: Column," by Kathy Liu Sun, USA Today, July 9, 2014

"Mathematics is the engine that creates," by Pamela Clute, The Desert Sun, June 20, 2014

"Have patience on imperfect Common Core," by John Ewing, USA Today, May 21, 2014

"Eight (No, Nine!) Problems With Big Data," by Gary Marcus and Ernest Davis, The New York Times, 6 April 2014

"How our 1,000-year-old math curriculum cheats America's kids," by Edward Frenkel, Los Angeles Times, March 2, 2014

"Can American students get smart?," by Solomon Friedberg, Los Angeles Times, December 11, 2013

"How to Fall in Love With Math," by Manil Suri, The New York Times, September 16, 2013

"Mathematics: 1,000 Years Old, and Still Hot," by Bryna Kra, The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 24, 2013

"Don't Let Economists and Politicians Hack Your Math," by Edward Frenkel, Slate, February 8, 2013

Your turn: Can you tell a story of mathematics?

What class lesson or teacher was your first inspiration? What area of math interests you most and why? What are you working on now in mathematics? Does mathematics always have to have a "real life" application? Why should basic research in mathematics be funded? Can you answer any of these questions in a way that your next door neighbor would understand? That's a challenge, and one that applies to the media as well.

Pitch a blog post to the Huffington Post, as Jonathan M. Borwein, Tim Chartier, Edward Frenkel, Evelyn Lamb, Frank Morgan, Colm Mulcahy and other mathematicians have done.

If your op-ed, letter to the editor, or article is published in the media email the AMS Public Awareness Office , alert your institution's news office, and tweet or post the link on your other social network.

Follow Math in the Media: a centralized source of mathematics-related op-eds, letters to the editor, articles and interviews

Find summaries of columns and interviews by mathematicians, articles and radio spots about mathematics and mathematics education in the free online magazine Math in the Media. Tony Phillips' Take includes Tony's unique interpretations of mathematics stories in scientific journals such as Science and Nature and newspapers around the country. Math Digest features summaries and mini-essays written by past AMS-AAAS Mass Media Fellows Claudia Clark, Lisa DeKeukelaere, Anna Haensch and Ben Polletta about media coverage of mathematical news and topics. The third part of Math in the Media includes links to online reviews of hundreds of books, plays and films.

Among the mathematicians who have published regularly in the media are Edward Frenkel, Carl Bialik, Marcus duSautoy, Erica Klarreich, John Allen Paulos, Keith Devlin, Jordan Ellenberg, Barry Cipra, Burkard Polster and Marty Ross, Dana Mackenzie, and Ian Stewart. See JPBM Communications Award recipients.