August 26, 2010

An Illusion of Understanding

Hyderabad, India, The panel discussion on "Communicating Mathematics to Society at Large" at the International Congress of Mathematicians attracted a large, attentive crowd. The presentations and audience comments all served to illustrate the many opportunities available for reaching out to the general public while acknowledging the diversity of that audience.

Of particular interest was a question from an Indian journalist in attendance, who asked whether achieving an "illusion of understanding" was enough, when reports for the general public have to leave out technical details and skim over complexities. Panel members, both journalists and mathematicians, replied that understanding develops step by step, whether in recreational reading or in mathematical research, along a road that approaches "truth" or "reality."

Other comments highlighted the difference between communicating mathematics and communicating about mathematics and whether a meaningful distinction exists between communicating mathematics and teaching mathematics.

Panel members (from left to right) Marianne Freiberger, Christiane Rousseau, Günter Ziegler, and R. Ramachandran.

Presentations by the panel members set the stage for the discussion. Christiane Rousseau (Université de Montréal) talked about why mathematicians should be interested in communicating mathematics to the general public and what message they ought to deliver and how best to do it.

I focused on the importance of understanding the intended audience and being aware of language barriers that can stand in the way of communication (see “Communicating Mathematics” and “The Mathematical Vocabulary Problem”).

Günter M. Ziegler (Deutsche Mathematiker-Vereinigung), who chaired the session, described settings and occasions that could be used for communicating mathematics. As illustrations, he used examples from the many successful programs developed for “Mathematics Year 2008” in Germany, ranging from blogs and articles to quiz shows, lectures, and websites.

Marianne Freiberger (Plus magazine) gave examples of the kinds of mathematical topics that the public finds particularly interesting, as shown in visits to articles at the Plus magazine website. Most popular was an article titled “Mysterious number 6174” by Yutaka Mishiyama. Next was the article “The story of the Gömböc,” prepared by Freiberger. People respond to such topics, even when they may be fearful of mathematics and even when the subject may have no obvious practical value, she noted.

Journalist R. Ramachandran (The Hindu) lamented the unsatisfactory state of science and math communication in India and the reluctance of Indian mathematicians to get involved with communicating mathematics to the public.

The session concluded with remarks on several efforts to develop multinational programs for communicating mathematics. In North America, the major mathematics institutes have joined together to put a special emphasis on “Mathematics of Planet Earth” in the year 2013. Rousseau heads that effort and is looking for support from other math societies and institutes throughout the world.

Photo by I. Peterson

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