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Why write about mathematics?

January 28, 2014

I am stepping down as managing editor of the Dynamical Systems magazine, a post I held for a bit more than 2 years.   David Uminsky is joining the team and will carry on along with Elizabeth Cherry and Peter van Heijster.   I am sure the magazine has a bright future.  In my last contribution as managing editor I tried to briefly explain why it is important to write about mathematics.  While this is directed to the readers of the DSWeb magazine, the message applies much more generally. Comments are welcome, as always:

In parting, I wanted to encourage the dynamical systems community in general to contribute to the magazine. The content here is mainly generated by you. Many of you will be contacted by the new editing team to contribute. Writing an article is a serious investment of time, and there will be no immediate rewards – you will not get paid, and it is unlikely to help you in getting promoted. So why spend time writing for the DSWeb magazine, instead of working on a manuscript or a grant proposal?  Indeed, is outreach ever worth the time we invest in it?

I think the answer is a resounding yes. Many of us chose to study mathematics or science in part because we have been inspired by Martin Gardner, Ian Stewart, James Gleick or Carl Sagan. Perhaps the best known applied dynamicist today is Steve Strogatz. He is a truly wonderful popularizer of mathematics (if you haven’t read his column in the New York Times, do yourself a favor and do so). While your piece will not reach such a large audience, it will almost certainly be read by more people than your next academic paper. And you have the chance to tell people about your work, what you think is interesting, and about your concerns.  Thereby you will help shape the public discourse about the profession.

But there is another thing that I have learned from Steve: Go and read any one of the papers that he has written in the last 10-15 years or so. You will notice that they are marvelously written (I admit, I have not read them all, but I doubt that my sample is biased).  This is certainly not unexpected. But what comes first: Are you simply born to be a good communicator so that writing both popular and technical prose comes easily?  Or is writing something that needs to be learned and practiced? If the latter, the practice of writing cogently for a nontechnical audience will translate into clearer technical expositions.  If you talk to popular science writers, or scientists who write popular pieces, you will find that in most cases writing did not come easily to them. However, invariability writing has gotten easier and the results better after years of practice.

So, you can choose your reason to contribute to contribute to the DSWeb magazine. You can be altruistic, and help the community.  Or you can make this part of a more general outreach effort, which will increase your visibility and help you become a better expositor.

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