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Six Weeks Of Pure "Misery" Can Be Fun

This article was written as part of MSRI's Journalist in Residence Program (1998-2004).

Six Weeks Of Pure "Misery" Can Be Fun

By K.C. Cole

A few summers ago, I signed up for six weeks of pure misery and enjoyed every minute of it. What's more, I learned a thing or two about what it takes to talk with a mathematician— a skill more science writers could use, and, who knows, perhaps even learn to enjoy.

Okay, so "misery" is actually the affectionate nickname for MSRI— the Mathematician Sciences Research Institute— the National Science Foundation's math think tank with a penthouse view of the San Francisco Bay from high atop the Berkeley Hills. For a while, the folks at MSRI tried to get people to pronounce the acronym as Emissary, but it never caught on. That said, MSRI has become an emissary in more ways than one.

For example, MSRI special projects director Robert Osserman wrote a beautiful book for lay people about mathematics: Poetry of the Universe: a Mathematical Exploration of the Cosmos. MSRI regularly sponsors events designed to bring mathematicians and the general public together: sold-out programs on the proof of Fermat's Last Theorem and the mathematics of Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia (with Tom Stoppard, no less). Public lectures on why the election was such a mess; the mathematics behind the musical form of the canon, the movie Toy Story, magic, and coincidence. An often contentious conference with science writers on why mathematicians and journalists have such trouble talking to each other (we could have used some copies of Deborah Tannen's book You Just Don't Understand!).

These folks are really trying!

MSRI was the first major math center to set up a formal fellowship program for science writers to learn about math. That's where I came in. Frankly, I didn't have a clue what I was supposed to be doing there. Relationships between mathematicians and science writers have never been particular warm. There is no established mechanism for communication, no Steve Maran of mathematics. Mathematicians hold few press conferences. When mathematicians do give what they believe are "public lectures" geared toward "lay" audiences, they often fail to make themselves understandable to anyone except a few stray physicists.

There are good reasons for this. While math is the scaffolding that makes discoveries in physics and astronomy possible, it's often deeply hidden, like plumbing, and not as pretty as stars. Math speaks its own language—one that doesn't easily translate into English. Of course, something gets lost in the translation whenever you translate science into lay terms, but mathematicians have a harder time reconciling themselves to these necessary compromises than other scientists do.

That's one of the things that's particularly rewarding about a fellowship at MSRI: You not only get educated yourself, you can help educate mathematicians about how to talk to science writers.

Most of the formal programs that went on during my six weeks at MSRI, I must admit, were lost on me. Fortunately, one week was devoted to a subject with which I had at least some familiarity. At first, I didn't realize this, because the topic was described as "low-dimensional topology." Now to me, "low-dimensional" meant one or two dimensions, lines or surfaces. But no, this was a week-long fest devoted to exploring three- and four-dimensional spaces — the ones we happen to live in and also the most difficult for mathematicians to understand. "Higher" dimensions are five and above. The exploration of "low-dimensional topology" turned out to be closely related to problems in physics and cosmology I often write about.

Math speaks its own language—one that doesn't easily translate into English.

In the end, I managed to get a two-part series out of the meeting for the LA Times Science File. I can't say understanding enough of the math to write the story was easy, but I learned something important in the process. I began to notice that whichever mathematician I spoke to last was the one I thought made most sense. Slowly, I was beginning to feel comfortable in this new territory. I realized that learning to write about math—more than any other science—requires that you "dare to be stupid," as Weird Al used to say. Don't worry if you don't get it at first. Ask someone else. Let it all sink it in. Sooner or later, understanding will come.

I spent the rest of my time at MSRI getting to know mathematicians who stopped in from time to time, and mainly, the terrific full-timers, like Bob Osserman and also David Hoffman, who taught me a neat paradox about calculus I still show off to people every time I find myself in possession of a napkin and a pen. I went with a bunch of MSRIers to see the then-new movie Pi, which was a special treat.

And, of course, I asked everyone I could find to talk with me about my favorite number, zero—also the subject of a book I was working on.

The fellowship is quite open-ended. You can make it whatever you like. There are no prerequisites, no expectations except a desire to test new waters. They're not as treacherous as you might think, and the folks at MSRI are ready and eager to help you swim.

For more information, check out MSRI's web site (www.msri.org).