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 or Senate to hold a doctorate in mathematics (University of New Mexico, 1981), McNerney has read into the Congressional Record one-minute expositions of such abstruse subjects as vector bundles, synesthesia, and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope.

Representatives often use time at the lectern to honor noteworthy constituents—a heroic veteran, perhaps, or an extraordinary educator. Indeed, when Stockton, California, mathematics teacher Andrew Walter was a state finalist for the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching in 2013, McNerney commended Walter on the House floor. He noted that Walter had led his Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) team to many state championships and one national one, where their student-built wind turbine took the top prize.

“It’s this type of dedication and commitment that will lead to innovation, the creation of good-paying jobs, and keep America as a world leader in these areas,” McNerney said.

A topic such as the Boltzmann equation or matrix factorizations has no California (or legislative) connection, though, and still McNerney has seen fit to speak about these subjects on the Hill. Sometimes he’s inspired to share with his colleagues—and perhaps attentive constituents—news of a mathematical or scientific insight or advance.

McNerney returned from the 2014 Joint Mathematics Meetings in Baltimore, for example, jazzed about headway mathematicians had made in settling a long-open question. Less than a month later, on February 11, McNerney took to the microphone in the House chamber. “Madam Speaker,” he said. “I would like to talk about twin prime numbers.”

McNerney puts his one-minute math and science spots together with the help of legislative assistant Shilpa Rajan. He and Rajan occasionally receive suggestions for subjects to spotlight. Boiling down complex material into a minute of talking is tricky, McNerney concedes, but he has been pleased with the results. As a member of the “Public Face of Mathematics” panel at the 2014 Joint Mathematics Meetings, McNerney told listeners that being coaxed into thinking about math has a positive effect on his congressional fellows.

“Instead of all the usual bickering that you get on the House floor, everyone smiles,” he reported. “They say, ‘This is really fun.’”

Math is fun, yes, but hard, too, and McNerney hopes that getting kids excited about math and science will help them muster the discipline to buckle down and engage with the nitty-gritty aspects of these quantitative fields.

“If you can just inspire kids, not only in my district but across the country, to be more interested in these subjects,” McNerney said when asked what he hopes to accomplish by bringing the likes of the twin prime conjecture to the House floor, “I think we’ll be better off as a country.”

Published in MAA FOCUS, June-July, 2014, vol. 34, no. 3, pp. 4-5.

Watch videos of Jarry McNerney speaking on mathematical topics to members of Congress:

An Algorithmic Solution to the Boltzmann Equation

Twin Prime Numbers

What is Math Comm

MAA Mathematical Communication (mathcomm.org) 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.