Untamed EnthusiasmApril 12, 2008
When he's not writing novels, teaching, or doing research, Manil Suri is working to make nonmathematicians aware of the mathematics all around them. You can see him in action in a talk he calls Taming Infinity.*
The talk, which is not intended for mathematicians, is about the cardinality of infinite sets. In it, Suri breaks down the meaning of "infinity" for viewers who would never have thought about the cardinality of the set of real numbers of between 0 and 1. Of course, the average nonmathematician is probably not all that interested in the meaning of "cardinality," but Suri is an outgoing host. He nearly turns the talk into a game show---he offers monetary bets with the audience throughout the talk and encourages participation, though he doesn't collect (or pay out) on camera.
The mathematician-turned-writer-turned-math-activist takes a playful approach, showing the Infinite Hotel occupied first by a football team, then by space aliens (except for poor "Xoloft," who is left without a room---thus proving by contradiction, in Suri's example, that the cardinality of the set of real numbers from 0 to 1 is larger than aleph-nought. Those tricky space aliens!). Toward the end of the talk, he also briefly considers Xeno's paradox, aided by an animation of a beach ball approaching a wall at half-length increments, and by his own motion as he walks across the room.
The talk is clearly intended to provoke an interest in mathematics among the uninitiated, which is not to say that someone with an above-novice level of knowledge couldn't enjoy it---even if only as an example of what works as outreach. Suri has said that for the past seven years, since the publication of his first novel, he has tried to spend more time on outreach than on mathematical research. Based on Taming Infinity, he's made good use of the time.---M.S.
*Taming Infinity is readily available: on YouTube; on Suri's Web site (http://www.manilsuri.com); and through the University of Maryland Baltimore County New Media Studio (http://asp1.umbc.edu/newmedia/studio/). The UMBC Web site also offers streaming video of Suri reading from The Age of Shiva.