From Ed Frenkel to Natalie Wolchover to Amy Hogan

A few years ago this Numberphile of Ed Frenkel inspired me to think more about how to share math with the public – and especially kids:

This morning I was reminded of the line around 5:41 in the video where Frenkel talks about how other fields do a better job sharing their work with the public than mathematics does:

“And I feel as though other scientists are doing a much better job; physicists, biologists. We keep talking about the solar system about the universe, about galaxies, about atoms and molecules, elementary particles and DNA.

Those concepts are no more complicated than things we do in modern mathematics. Why is it that, you know, DNA and stars and elementary particles are part of our cultural discourse but mathematical ideas are not? Well, in part because we are not doing nearly enough. We professional mathematicians are not doing nearly enough.”

What reminded me of Frenkel’s quote here was this incredible article from Natalie Wolchover (which I was listening to on Quanta magazine’s podcast):

Neutrinos Hint of Matter-Antimatter Rift

I won’t put words in Frenkel’s mouth, but the study of neutrino interactions feels like exactly the type of thing he was talking about physicists study that is “no more complicated than things we do in modern mathematics.”

Wolchover’s article does a fantastic job of making both the problem physicists are studying and their experimental results accessible to the public. This paragraph in particular struck me as a great bit to share with high school students:

“If the seesaw is balanced, signifying perfect CP symmetry, then (accounting for differences in the production and detection rates of neutrinos and antineutrinos) the T2K scientists would have expected to detect roughly 23 electron neutrino candidates and seven electron antineutrino candidates in Kamioka, Tanaka said. Meanwhile, if CP symmetry is “maximally” violated — the seesaw tilted fully toward more neutrino oscillations and fewer antineutrino oscillations — then 27 electron neutrinos and six electron antineutrinos should have been detected. The actual numbers were even more skewed. “What we observed are 32 electron neutrino candidates and four electron antineutrino candidates,” Tanaka said.”

I love how the reader gets to see what the scientists expected in two situations (i) 23 / 7, or (ii) 27 / 6, and then what they actually found – 32 / 4. What a great example of the scientific process!

This paragraph is also a great opportunity to talk with kids about statistics. I’m sure that high school students could understand the basic statistical ideas here and have have a great discussion about the data presented in the article. In fact, this short lecture from New York master teacher Amy Hogan discusses a similar statistics problem:

So, I loved Wolchover’s article and think it is really a great model for how to communicate complicated ideas from math and science with the public. I especially love that there’s something that teachers can use in their classrooms right away. I hope that we’ll see more and more articles similar to this one that bring advanced ideas from math to the public.