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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 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:

  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

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) 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


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 AMS Outreach, 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 news