Why Do Math?

September 26, 2005

Chris Johnson of the University of Utah, who gave the I.E. Block Community Lecture at the SIAM Annual Meeting in New Orleans (“Computing the Future of Biomedicine”), accepted a clock from SIAM president Martin Golubitsky at the prize lunch. Tucked in somewhere should have been an invitation to contribute to the whydomath project!

By Martin Golubitsky and Katherine Socha

Have you ever tried to explain to a congressional staffer why the mathematical and computational sciences are important? How often have you tried to convince a good student of the importance of the mathematical and computational sciences? As members of the SIAM community, we all believe that mathematics can be used in myriad ways; if you are like us, though, you could use a resource to help make that argument compelling. SIAM is developing such a re-source, a Web site that will be called whydomath, and we need your help to make it a success.

The whydomath project aims to increase the numbers of students who study mathematics and computational science at colleges and universities, to improve public understanding and reinforce positive impressions of these fields, and to raise the bar for science and mathematics Web sites by making full use of the interactive, multimedia capabilities of the Internet. We want to showcase the value of interdisciplinary work and of mathematics and computational science to society. Our strategy is to de-sign an extensive and interactive Web experience that humanizes these disciplines, emphasizes the fascination of interdisciplinary work, and demonstrates that the theoretical content can be beautiful and engaging.

A Collection of Interactive Nodes
The whydomath site will consist of nodes, each focused on a single story. A node might describe the mathematical algorithm that drastically reduced the time needed to complete the sequencing of the human genome, or it might describe new methods, based on ideas from dynamical systems theory, for planning interplanetary space missions. A node will meet two criteria: first, mathematics and/or computational science should feature prominently in the explanation of the particular problem, and, second, the area being discussed should be important to many people outside of the mathematics community.

We envision each whydomath node as an engaging multimedia site that introduces its topic at the level of a college freshman or sophomore, or perhaps of a reader of a mainstream newspaper's science section. The nodes will emphasize exciting applications in which mathematical analysis has provided unique insight. They will also showcase tools that can solve problems across a wide range of disciplines.

The target audience for this project is first- or second-year college students. At this level, the material will be accessible to advanced high school students and indeed to anyone who has been intrigued by mathematics and computational science in the course of pursuing an interest in another field. Because the Web site will be open to anyone with Internet access, whydomath can have international as well as local and national impact. By using the Web format, SIAM will make this material available freely and in perpetuity, and we imagine over time a larger and larger database of nodes.

The content of the whydomath Web site will be layered, with the layers increasing in sophistication as the user proceeds. After the entry page at a "popular science" level, with multimedia resources, the mathematical and scientific content will increase gradually through hyperlinks. This approach should make the site a resource to be visited again and again. Many Web presentations of mathematics and computational science are either encyclopedic or lesson-centered, and neither of these approaches achieves our vision or our main goal of making mathematics and computational science attractive to talented students.

A Reading Room will provide additional resources, such as access to popular (Scientific American) and SIAM News-style articles for the Web surfer who would like to learn more. A Puzzle Room and a Projects Room may be added later. Related career discussions will highlight the experiences of professionals with undergraduate degrees in mathematics or computational science, featuring people who use computational sciences or mathematics in their work. The career material will be created in cooperation with the SIAM Education Committee, which is now in the process of revising the SIAM Web site on undergraduate education.

Here is a sampling of topics that we would like to see represented: cryptography; water waves; global positioning systems; medical imaging; crowd dynamics; synchrony; special effects in movies; poker; voting; heart physiology; small-world networks; car body design; oil recovery; data compression and wavelets (mpegs and jpegs); and computer visualization--to name just a very few. Our goal is a collection of accurate, clear, and appealing nodes.

Uncle SIAM Wants YOU!
Given the popularity of science and mathematics as featured recently on television programs such as CSI and Numb3rs, we believe that students and the general public will be attracted to a Web site of the type outlined here.

The whydomath project will be successful only if it highlights a wide variety of exciting application areas in which mathematics or computational science has made substantial contributions. No one person or small group of people knows about or can tell all of these stories. Success for whydomath will be possible only if the SIAM community as a whole contributes, and this means you--the readers of SIAM News.

It's a good time to get in on this project, because we're just at the beginning and have few fixed ideas about what will make a node successful. Our only requirements are that the nodes emphasize the excitement and utility of mathematics. We're not asking you to create the Web pages (unless you would like to!); rather, we would be delighted if you would work with us to design a node. Remember that the entry level is to be elementary; the node does not have to be about your own research, and text is only one component of a node. If you have ideas about demonstrating the mathematics in a non-written form, perhaps through graphics, audio voice-overs, videos, or animations, we can provide assistance: SIAM is working with Web designers who can help you implement your ideas. So let your imagination go wild! Your contribution can help make whydomath a valuable resource for years to come.

We hope to hear from many of you: If you are interested in creating a node, we will gladly provide as much guidance and discussion as you would like. If you would like to see a particular topic represented, we want to hear about that, too, ideally with the names of people who might be able to develop that topic. Go ahead--volunteer your colleagues! We won't tell. We look forward to hearing from you (contact us at whydomath@siam.org. Guidelines for contributors and a posting of FAQ can be found at http://www.whydomath.org.

Martin Golubitsky, SIAM president, is a professor of mathematics at the University of Houston and the founding editor-in-chief of SIAM's first online-only journal, SIAM Journal on Applied Dynamical Systems. Katherine Socha, whydomath project coordinator, is an assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at St. Mary's College of Maryland.

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