Math Comm Blog

Math by the Minute on Capitol Hill

By Katharine Merow If you think it’s hard to distill research results into a 15-minute conference presentation, try this: Choose a subject like matrix factorizations or recent progress on the twin prime conjecture. Figure out how to make a nonexpert audience—members of Congress, say—if not fully understand the chosen topic, at least appreciate its significance. Do this in a minute. The clock is ticking. Jerry McNerney of California’s Ninth Congressional District has risen to such a challenge more than 10 times in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he has served since 2007. The only current member of the House […]

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The E8 News Story

By David W. Farmer and Sally Koutsoliotas In 2007, the American Institute of Mathematics (AIM) had the experience of promoting a math result in the media. We had hopes of reaching beyond the usual avenues that specifically cover math stories (such as MAA and AMS) to more mainstream science and technology media, such as Science, American Scientist, and the weekly science supplement of the New York Times. We also wanted some local coverage: AIM is in the process of moving from Palo Alto to Morgan Hill, California, and we would like people in our local community to know about AIM […]

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Writing Coach

By Ivars Peterson Even professional writers can use the help of a writing coach. And Ann Wylie is one of the best. About a decade ago when I was on the staff of Science News magazine, the editors invited Wylie to present a writing workshop at the publication’s offices in Washington, D.C . The staff writers were already highly experienced in translating complex research results into articles aimed at a general audience. But there is always room for improvement. Wiley’s workshop focused on “making your copy more creative.”  In other words, thinking long and hard about what would capture and […]

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You Be the Editor II

Test your mathematical communication skills. The following exercise is based on “Notes on Writing Mathematics” by Haynes Miller, Department of Mathematics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Each sentence or phrase has at least one flaw. How would you edit each one to improve its style or syntax? 1. The Euler’s constant is an irrational number. 2. Since x > 0, let y = √2. 3. If we draw a line between P and Q, it is easy to show that . . . 4. There is nothing special about 10, this analysis can be generalized by replacing a for 10 as the base. 5. Hence, x […]

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If You Would Know the Number

For those whose appreciation of recreational mathematics dates back no earlier than Martin Gardner’s “Mathematical Games” articles in Scientific American, it may be a bit startling to find that mathematics writing for a “general audience” has been around for centuries. The book A Wealth of Numbers: An Anthology of 500 Years of Popular Mathematics Writing, edited by historian and writer Benjamin Wardhaugh (Princeton University Press), is an eye-opening collection of fascinating mathematical tidbits, aimed at “ordinary people.” The 100 or so extracts included in the book add up to a history of mathematics that “shows the subject through the eyes […]

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Advice on Giving a Good PowerPoint Presentation

By Joseph A. Gallian, University of Minnesota Duluth The ability to do a PowerPoint (or equivalent) presentation well is a valuable skill that many students will find useful in connection with their academic work and employment. Preparation 1. Determine the level of knowledge of the target audience. 2. Choose a subject that will appeal to the intended audience. 3. Don’t overestimate what the audience knows about your subject. 4. Don’t try to do too much. 5. Use simple examples and concrete special cases. A “non-example” often helps to clarify a concept. For instance, if you use the integers modulo 7 […]

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Paul Halmos on Mathematics Lectures

Paul R. Halmos (1916-2006) had strong views on the communication of mathematics, whether in written form, in the classroom, or in lectures. See, for example, “Paul Halmos on Writing Mathematics.” Here’s his reminder to lecturers: “Some lecturers defend complications and technicalities by saying that that’s what their subject is like, and there is nothing they can do about it. I am skeptical, and I am willing to go so far as to say that such statements indicate incomplete understanding of the subject and of its place in mathematics. Every subject, and even every small part of a subject, if it […]

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Making Math Talks More Accessible

By Katharine Merow In the waning hours of MAA MathFest 2013, in Room 12 of Hartford’s Connecticut Convention Center, James Freeman addresses a sparse crowd he has dubbed “the few, the proud, and the brave.” Then, as if to determine whether “the candid” ought to be added to that list, the Cornell College professor poses a touchy question: “How many of you have heard bad talks at MathFest?” Getting some mathematicians to admit the impenetrability of, say, an invited lecture borders on impossible, but folks at this session—“Great Talks for a General Audience: Coached Presentations by Graduate Students”—have no qualms […]

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Knowing What It Means to Know Your Audience

By Aaron Luttman and Rachel Schwell A number of years ago a graduate student was asked to give a 20-minute presentation at the Montana Academy of Sciences annual meeting describing his research on using partial differential equations to model a botanical process. The student thought to himself, “The audience will consist of graduate students and faculty from a wide range of sciences, who aren’t necessarily familiar with PDE modeling or the numerical issues involved. I’ll make sure to spend plenty of time going through the numerical details of my computation, so the audience will understand the computational subtleties.” This student […]

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Lectures Are Ineffective

“Active learning” hit the news this week with the publication of a study suggesting that undergraduate students generally do better in classes that engage them through activities or discussion than in lecture-based courses. Scott Freeman (University of Washington) and his colleagues describe their results in the paper “Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics,” published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Freeman and his team analyzed 225 studies conducted between 1942 and 2010 that reported data on exam scores or failure rates when comparing traditional lecturing versus active learning in undergraduate science, engineering, […]

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What is Math Comm

MAA Mathematical Communication ( is a developing collection of resources for engaging students in writing and speaking about mathematics. The site originated in the MIT Department of Mathematics and was expanded through support from an NSF grant.