Last week, a story of an unusual nature managed to break into the regular news cycle. It was a story about math–more specifically, the discovery of a five-sided shape that can be used to cover an area without leaving gaps or overlapping pieces (a trick known as “tiling the plane”). The Guardian picked up the story, as did The Huffington Post, the Daily Mail, and NPR, which opted to run it twice.
Unlike developments in other fields, discoveries in mathematics rarely make it beyond academic journals and special-interest blogs. Even among the dedicated science press, which regularly covers opaque fields like cosmology, pure math stories can be hard to find. The field has a unique mix of qualities that make it difficult for the press to cover, from an inscrutable language and sluggish pace of discovery to its dealings in purely abstract concepts with little immediacy for the average reader. Simply finding a story can prove more complicated than in, say, physics, wherein a published paper might at least use a recognizable phrase like “black holes.”
“You need a lot more background knowledge on the field to even recognize a math paper as something cool, unique, and new,” says Lisa Grossman, the physical sciences news editor at New Scientist.
People are intrigued by mathematicians. They kind of understand there’s this unique kind of genius that they have, and yet the work they do is totally obscure. Every now and again the press will find a story that lets people into it.
And yet journalists take on big, if different, challenges to cover subjects like particle physics and genetics all the time. Untangling complex but fascinating ideas is part of the public service science writers provide. That service is incomplete when coverage of an entire field is often neglected out of fear. “I think there’s a real need for it,” says Kristin Ozelli, senior editor at Scientific American Mind.
The complexity of the language may be one factor keeping lay writers away from covering the subject. (A recent edition of the prominent journal Annals of Mathematics lists such inviting titles as “Anomalous dissipation for 1/5-Hölder Euler flows.”) It was one of the first challenges for Kevin Hartnett–who writes the Boston Globe “Brainiac” column and has covered academic research for years–when he began writing about math research for publications like Quanta Magazine. “It was very intimidating, and it felt quite different from any other types of stuff I’d written about,” Hartnett says. “With mathematics research, there’s just no kind of easy point of entry.”
Because of the high learning curve, even a basic math story can mean a bigger time commitment than the current rushed media landscape is likely to support. The late Martin Gardner, who wrote Scientific American’s highly popular column “Mathematical Games,” spent a month preparing one column, Ozelli says.
The competitive news cycle can also be unfriendly to abstract stories that have little connection to a reader’s daily life. “Compared to other fields, developments in math don’t always have the same immediate relevancy to the real world,” Ozelli says. “It can be harder to answer that question of, Why do readers need to know that now? A lot of math is fun or beautiful or interesting, but not immediately practical.”
Many of the most successful math stories have been features that arrive at math’s inner workings through the lives of its enigmatic practitioners. In 1992, The New Yorker laid bare the absurdity of pi–author Richard Preston called it “a bloody mess”–by chronicling the reclusive habits of two brothers who built a supercomputer in a Manhattan apartment. More recently, Gareth Cook at The New York Times Magazine marveled at the mystery of prime numbers by profiling the otherwise “super-normal” mathematical genius Terry Tao. Perhaps the grandest in this tradition is journalist Sylvia Nasar’s biography of John Nash, whose mathematical prowess was matched with tragic paranoid schizophrenia.
“People are intrigued by mathematicians,” Hartnett says. “They kind of understand there’s this unique kind of genius that they have, and yet the work they do is totally obscure. Every now and again the press will find a story that lets people into it.”
What’s largely missing is the day-to-day reporting that covers nearly every other field. Both Grossman and Ozelli say they get few pitches for math pieces, even though their publications are looking to print them. Knowing little about math need not put writers off its trail. In his memoirs Undiluted Hocus-Pocus, Gardner wrote that even after decades of filing his column, he still struggled to grasp mathematics in its entirety.
“One of the pleasures in writing the column was that it introduced me to so many top mathematicians, which of course I was not,” Gardner wrote. “Their contributions to my column were far superior to anything I could write, and were a major reason for the column’s growing popularity. The secret of its success was a direct result of my ignorance.”