Publicizing Mathematics TodayOctober 15, 1998
T.H. Huxley's success in popularizing science in the 19th century (see accompanying book review) notwithstanding, scientists are still struggling today to communicate the nature and value of their work to a general audience. Mathematics especially can be a tough sell-to the science editor of a newspaper, for example. But in three recent articles, mathematics emerged as a useful, lively discipline that is being applied in a wide range of contexts.
- Gratifying to SIAM for more than one reason was Sara Robinson's article "Mathematical Model of Petrarch's Poetry," published on August 3 in the Dallas Morning News, where Robinson was a SIAM-AAAS Media Fellow this summer. Robinson's story, based on a paper by Sergio Rinaldi in SIAM Journal on Applied Mathematics (Vol. 58, August 1998), explains Rinaldi's finding that "for about 20 years the poet's emotions [his undying love for the mysterious Laura] followed a regular cyclical pattern ranging between extremes of ecstasy and utter despair."
Rinaldi's equations, Robinson writes, "represent the rate of change of Laura's love for Petrarch over time, the rate of change of Petrarch's love for Laura, and the rate of change of Petrarch's 'poetic inspiration,'" all based on the poems.
- Science writer K.C. Cole of the Los Angeles Times, in a July 14 article that grew out of this year's Mathematics Awareness Week, documents some good-natured grumbling on the part of UCLA mathematicians. "Math never gets into the story," said UCLA mathematics department chair Tony Chan; "everyone else gets all the credit." Coles goes on to document a range of interesting applications in which UCLA mathematicians have played a role, from Stanley Osher's edge detection algorithms for enhancing photographs and video images to Russel Caflisch's work on the development of new materials for use in communications satellites. "There comes a point where you just can't do the experiments you need to get the data you want," said Caflisch. "But with mathematics, you can work in places where you can't get real experimental results."
Coles gives the last word to Doug Robles of Digital Domain, whose talk on special effects for movies, including Titanic and Apollo 13, at UCLA's Mathematics Awareness Week included a plaintive request: "If you guys have good fast differential equation solvers, I'd sure love to have them."
- In an essay published in The New York Times (September 1), Dartmouth College mathematician Dan Rockmore considers two recent movies said to be "all about math"---Good Will Hunting and Pi. The former, to the extent that it "plays up the cliches while neglecting the core of mathematics," he finds "hardly about mathematics at all."
In support of his statement that "the pervasiveness of mathematics is subtle," Rockmore cites three other recent artworks: the movie Sliding Doors---"a wonderful illustration of the way the long-term behavior of a system can be highly sensitive to its initial conditions, a notion that is at the heart of chaos theory"; the grid-based portraits of the painter Chuck Close, as seen in the recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York-an expression of the "deep ideas that underlie much of the mathematics of image compression"; and Larry's Party, by the Canadian novelist Carol Shields---in which the appeal of the botanical mazes designed by the protagonist is "rooted in some deep emotional connection that we all make with symmetry and geometry of the mazes of our lives."
"I believe that some of the best art really is about mathematics," Rockmore concludes, "but we may have to dig a little to see it." Interested readers may want to do a little digging of their own and read the complete versions of these articles.