“I hated math in high school”
When I meet new people at a party and mention that I am a mathematician, I sometimes hear back “I hated math in high school,” or “I always hated mathematics.” To be honest, I didn’t much like it in high school either. The mathematics I did then like factoring polynomials or trigonometry has little to do with my present research in graph theory. Nevertheless, blanket statements like that feel like a slap in the face.
If you met a writer, would say you hate reading? Imagine meeting Margaret Atwood and saying you think books are horrible. If you meet a racecar driver, would you say you hate cars? If you met a chemist, would say you hate oxi-reduction reactions?
Mathematicians may appear intimidating but the good ones love to discuss their ideas. We may not all look like Pietro Boselli (university mathematics lecturer and fashion model), but it is worth chatting with us.
The tried and true method to strike up a conversation with anyone is to ask questions. The featured image of this blog is Ken Ono explaining some mathematical ideas to Dev Patel on the set of the movie The Man Who Knew Infinity (see my review). Patel looks at ease and engaged!
Here are some you can ask the next time you meet a mathematician.
Ask about their research
Don’t give them a pass: force them to explain their work in layperson’s language. Any decent mathematician can do that. For instance, do you play Sudoku? That is an example of a graph coloring problem that is computationally difficulty (i.e. NP-complete) for general-sized squares. That segues to one of the world’s deepest mysteries: whether P is equal to NP, which comes with a million dollar prize if you solve it. Frankly, there are easier ways to earn a million dollars.
Are you on Facebook? Twitter? These are real-world complex networks with evolutionary properties in common with internet architecture, and even protein networks in living cells. Cool stuff.
Ask them about the giant problems
Mathematicians think about tough open problems. We dream about solving them.
Talk to your resident mathematician about some famous conjectures. You might hear about recent progress by Shinichi Mochizuchi on the abc conjecture, the centuries-old Riemann hypothesis, or the Goldbach conjecture whose statement can be understood by a high school math student (every integer greater than two can be expressed as a sum of two primes).
There are also great stories about the resolution of some big conjectures, such as Fermat’s Last Theorem, the Strong Perfect graph theorem, or the Poincaré conjecture.
Ask about our glitterati
Yes, there are some incredibly talented people working in mathematics. Today, actually. Right now as you read this.
Have you heard of Terrence Tao, Andrew Wiles, Maria Chudnovsky, or John Conway? These are some of the living mathematicians who have done amazing things.
Mathematical history is long and rich. You may hear about Srinivasa Ramanujan, Emmy Noether, Paul Erdős, or Alan Turing who each had a massive impact on 20th century mathematics. Or historical figures such as Euler, Riemann, Euclid, Hypatia or Ada Lovelace. Just ask.
Ask how mathematics relates to the arts
Many recent movies and popular books focus on mathematicians or mathematics. The Imitation Game, The Man Who Knew Infinity, or The Theory of Everything are example of movies with lead characters who are mathematicians (Stephen Hawking at least uses advanced mathematics for his physical theories).
There is a deep connection between mathematics and music, and between mathematics and the visual arts. I wrote a blog about these connections, citing mathematicians who sculpt, write, and make music. A famous classical example was Leonardo da Vinci, who painted the Mona Lisa but was also a gifted mathematician, writer, engineer, and inventor.
Make friends with your local mathematician. Don’t be put off by our awkwardness or shyness. There are some great discussions waiting for you.