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 editor — or even a blog post or article — published in an online or print newspaper, or magazine.
Checklist for an Op-Ed or Letter to the Editor
- Follow the newspaper or magazine guidelines (submission method, word count, your contact information)
- Explain in an introduction why they should publish your piece (importance to their readership, your credentials)
- Write on a timely topic
- Be brief and clear (with no typos or grammatical errors)
- Thank 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:
- Illuminate. Give the reader a shiver of pleasure by providing an "Aha!" experience.
- Make connections. Tie the math to something the reader already enjoys.
- 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:
- Tell a story
- Personalize it
- Avoid jargon
See also: "Publicize Your Research," by Audrey Williams June, The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 20, 2017 (subscription may be required), in which scientists give reasons and advice for communicating research beyond academic peers and to the media.
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
- "A math problem for Pi Day," by Satyan Linus Devadoss, The Washington Post, March 14, 2018
- "Who Invented ‘Zero’?," by Manil Suri, The New York Times, October 7, 2017
- "Democracy has roots in math and science," by Edwin O'Shea, Richmond Times Dispatch, October 5, 2017
- "The creative process of mathematics," by Jeff Shriner, Daily Camera (Boulder, CO), August 25, 2017
- "Why aren't people listening to scientists?," by Marcus du Sautoy, Los Angeles Times (Op-Ed), April 23, 2017
- "The World's Most Beautiful Mathematical Equation," by Richard A. Friedman, The New York Times (Opinion), April 15, 2017
- "What’s the point of maths research? It’s the abstract nonsense behind tomorrow’s breakthroughs," by Wolfram Bentz, The Conversation, September 19, 2016
- "Teaching mathematics creates beautiful minds," by Hilla Rogel, Miami Herald, May 4, 2016
- "The Mathematician's 90th-Birthday Party," by Manil Suri, The New York Times (Opinion), April 25, 2016
- "Maths isn't the problem - the way it's taught is," by Tim Gowers, The Guardian, March 11, 2016
- "Math’s Place in the Classroom," by Lucy Brownstein, The New York Times, February 18, 2016. (Brownstein is a high school student and this letter to the editor is in response to "Who Needs Math? Not Everybody," by Andrew Hacker (Education Life, The New York Times, February 7, 2016)
- "A Puzzling Solution for Math Education", by Frank Wilczek, The Wall Street Journal, January 8, 2016
- "The Importance of Recreational Math," by Manil Suri, The New York Times, October 12, 2015 (see "Math for Fun," by Gayle Horvath, follow-up Letter to the Editor, New York Times, October 22, 2015)
- "The ‘New’ New Jersey Mathematics Standards – Circa 2009," by Joseph G. Rosenstein, NJ Spotlight, July 13, 2015
- "Mathematicians and Blue Crabs," by Manil Suri, The New York Times, May 2, 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, which includes Tony Phillips' Take includes Tony's unique interpretations of mathematics stories in scientific journals such as Science and Nature and newspapers around the country, and "Media Coverage of Math" – links to articles, radio segments, press releases on the newswires and reviews 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.