The maths of everything

Jennifer-Ouellette-credit-Ken-Weingart-2This interview was originally published in COSMOS Magazine, issue 51.

Los Angeles-based Jennifer Ouellette writes about science, particularly physics, for The Wall Street JournalNew Scientist and Physics World. Her most recent book, The Calculus Diaries, tackles many students’ nemesis, mathematics. She tells COSMOS reviews editor Rivqa Rafael why she took up the challenge. 

RR: How did you become a science writer?

JO: It was the cosmic joke, because I wasn’t a science-minded person. I was an English major, and had never thought about being a science writer – I didn’t even know the profession existed. But I moved to New York City after college and got a job with the American Physical Society. I started with society news at first, then interviewing physicists. After a few years, I suddenly realised I was a science writer. So I fell in love with physics very belatedly.

Maths is one of the greatest academic phobias. What inspired you to address it?

I had seen a demonstration of the classic coin and feather in a vacuum, showing how objects fall at the same rate regardless of mass. I asked a physicist friend: “I get that it’s true, but why is it true, and how did physicists figure it out?” He said it would be perfectly obvious if I would let him run me through the equation. My initial reaction was ‘I don’t like maths’. Eventually he guilt-tripped me into it and he was absolutely right. You have the big ‘M’ for the mass of the Earth in the equation, you have these two little ‘m’s for the masses of the two objects, and as you go through the derivation, they cancel out; they are irrelevant to the answer. It was a defining moment, because I realised [maths allowed you to] see the underlying reality. Nature can fool you.

Do you think it’s a failing of education that so many of us are so afraid of maths?

There’s no easy answer to that. It’s very easy to say it’s the education system, it’s our lazy students, it’s the patriarchy – it’s all of those things. But for me, it came down to not being willing to fail. We assume that things should come easily to us – I certainly did. So when I encountered something I found difficult, my immediate reaction was ‘I must be bad at this’. It didn’t occur to me to think, ‘I’m bad at this, but if I work really hard, maybe I’ll get better.’ I got a black belt in jujitsu in my thirties. You don’t develop a martial art skill overnight – you have to go to the dojo three or four times a week and you have to sweat, bleed, screw up, fall down, get back up and keep at it until you get it right. I realised I was willing to do that for jujitsu but not for maths. I saw that it was a question of persevering and being willing to take the time to take risks and fail until I broke through the wall.

You put to bed the belief that maths has no use to anyone who isn’t an engineer. What made you realise this wasn’t the case?

In real-world applications, you can have systems that seem very different, but if you look at the underlying mathematical functions they’re surprisingly similar. I was fascinated by these hidden connections, and you don’t see those until you start looking at the real-world context, because most of us just don’t think abstractly. So to me, it was just a useful way to take the most common calculus functions and build each chapter around one unique application of them. I went to Vegas and learned to shoot craps, and I was able to talk about probability distributions and why the only way to win in Vegas is not to play. We went to Disneyland and rode the rides, and the freefall ride is a parabola. I went to Hawaii and took a surfing lesson, and that became the sine wave. It ended up being a lot of fun; it gave me good stories to tell, which I think is important when you’re trying to appeal to an audience that might be resistant to or afraid of your topic.

Do you still see the world in mathematical terms?

It’s definitely stuck with me. The point of the book was not to make me a whiz at calculus – I’m still very much at the baby calculus, ‘see Jane run’ stage. But even baby calculus is better than nothing, and I think what I mostly gained is not having that knee-jerk negative reaction of fear and revulsion when I saw an equation. Now, when I see an equation, I know that if I walk through it, it will make sense – and it’s worth doing. To me, that’s a significant change in my attitude and it seems to have been permanent.

A zombie apocalypse is a concern for many of us. How can maths help us survive it?

This ties in with the exponential growth curve and epidemiology of how disease spreads. I was inspired by a mathematical model of a zombie outbreak. The first thing it showed was that if we do nothing and let the disease run its course, there will be nothing but zombies within three days – it spreads that fast. Then the model looked at different strategies to stop this. The classic ‘hiding out in a mall’ isn’t effective, because sooner or later they’ll find you. The only thing that will stop the spread is to kill as many zombies as possible, as fast as possible. If you don’t, you’ll never be able to get ahead of the disease. This became the basis for a policy paper [recommending this strategy for funding] HIV prevention.

What will your next book be about?

It’s related to the question of how I got the idea that I was bad at maths – how we decide who we are. This affects our choices – maybe I would have studied more science in college, thinking I could be a science writer, rather than being (happily) surprised by it. So the new book, called Me, Myself and Why: Searching for the Science of Self, is about how we become who we are. I did a personal genotype test; I had my brain scanned; I took personality tests. I hung out in Second Life because there’s a chapter on avatars as an extension of self in the digital realm. We dropped acid – that chapter kicks off a meta discussion of how we construct a self, because acid breaks that down and you can see that you’re a construct. The final chapter is about how we construct our personal story as a way of making meaning out of what happens to us. It ends where the journey began – how ‘being bad at maths’ became part of my identity. Once you understand that it’s a story, you can change it. It’s empowering that we can alter how we think of ourselves.

Image credit: Ken Weingart

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