SIAM Announces Second Writing ContestJune 15, 1998
The March and May issues of SIAM News featured the two (very different) prize-winning articles selected by the judges of the first SIAM Writing Contest. Bonnie and Bill Kath, in their article on solitons (March issue), began with a timely topic---a necessary but not sufficient condition for success!---and then presented a lively, accessible account of the development of the mathematical theory and the hard work of applying it to the transmission of information in optical fiber. Marc Frantz (May issue), a participant in an NSF initiative for the development of new undergraduate mathematics curricula, gave readers a glimpse of the ways in which mathematics can be made useful and accessible to artists.
Each of the prize-winning articles is worth another look by readers interested in submitting articles to the second SIAM Writing Contest. Other examples found in recent issues of SIAM News, although not submitted to the contest, were written in the spirit intended by the SIAM Board of Trustees in establishing the contest. In the June 1997 issue, for example, SIAM president-elect Gilbert Strang took another timely topic--the Global Positioning System---and gave readers a just-deep-enough look at the technology and the underlying mathematics. (The National Academy of Sciences is publishing a series of pamphlets intended to make the general public aware of the ways in which scientific research is making their lives better; an extremely effective NAS pamphlet on GPS is one of the first.
Other good examples can be found in the science sections of newspapers and in science magazines for general audiences. An arbitrary selection of memorable articles from The New York Times covers topics from the very technical (micro-electrical-mechanical systems, or MEMS) to the general (one mathematician's novel perspective on an immunological problem) to the human-interest level (a mathematical model of the oboe reed-making process---a time-consuming, exacting process carried out by the musician, by hand---developed by a physicist for his musician wife).
After looking over the work of successful authors, those thinking of entering the contest should keep in mind the following guidelines:
Write about an application that matters; tell your readers why it matters. "Mattering" can occur at different levels: The optical applications of soliton theory could have a major impact on everyone alive in the Information Age; the usefulness of Marc Frantz's perspective hints isn't limited to painters-every-one looks at art in museums, or in art books.
- Think about the audience--in this case readers of SIAM News--in deciding on the level of the mathematics to be presented. Anyone with a mathematics-related PhD can be expected to understand certain concepts, but all but a few experts in a field will stop reading if the description becomes too detailed.
- Step outside the journal paper mindset. ("It reads like a watered-down journal paper" was one of the most frequent objections of the judges from the first writing contest.) Don't feel compelled to explain every step in the development of the piece of mathematics you're describing. Similarly, it's not necessary to credit every researcher who ever thought about the idea.
- Write about work you know well enough to present in a clear, direct way without getting bogged down in details. Bill Kath's research is in solitons; Marc Frantz is both an artist and a mathematician. Paul Davis, whose articles appear frequently in SIAM News, may be anomolous in this respect; asked to think about a particular topic for a SIAM News article, he declined on the grounds that he wouldn't feel comfortable writing about a subject he knew well-familiarity would have made telling a balanced story for a broad audience difficult. Like Davis, Barry Cipra has the ability to get interested in a subject completely new to him, talk to some of the people involved, and turn it into a lively, readable account, whether he's writing about tornado forecasting, an important well-established development like the FFT, or a quirky, more focused piece of work that caught his attention (flour beetle populations).
As in the first contest, what the SIAM board has in mind in sponsoring the contest (with a first prize of $1000, and additional prizes to be awarded at the judges' discretion) is to encourage readers to become adept at explaining what they do, and why it matters, to people outside the mathematics community. Take a look at the examples, and if you think you have a good topic (an interesting application of mathematics), write it up (in under 2500 words, with illustrations if they would be helpful) and submit it to the editor of SIAM News (firstname.lastname@example.org), who would also be happy to talk to potential writers about their ideas (215-382-9800); the deadline for receipt of submissions is September 14.