Popularizing Math: let's think big

The US has category theorist and TV personality Eugenia Cheng and Stanford professor Jo Boaler. The UK has Carol Vorderman and Marcus du Sautoy, Oxford professor for the public understanding of science. What they are all doing is popularizing mathematics, an important but often thankless task — academic mathematicians often look down on popularization as beneath them, and being a public math figure can mean being a target for math anxieties.

No doubt the public image of mathematics could use some improvement. The recent movie "The Incredibles II" contains a wonderful scene that summarizes how adults feel about math these days. When Dash asks his dad (aka Mr. Incredible) to help him with math. When Dash explains "that's not the way you're supposed to do it Dad, they want us to do it this way," Mr. Incredible answers "I don't know that way. Why would they change math? Math is math. Math is math!"

And no doubt popular feelings about math are hard to change. Common wisdom in the publishing world says that every equation you include in a general-interest book cuts sales in half. How can you write about subject when the subject itself is unspeakable? 

I say big change is not only possible, it is inevitable. The only question is which way the winds of change will blow. To get there will require that we think big. Instead of settling for small local change, assume that big global change is possible, then work to make it happen. As Margaret Mead said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."


Before we get to solutions, let's talk about the problem. 

1. What are we trying to accomplish?

Or rather, what is each of us trying to accomplish, and how can we help each other? What end result do we want to achieve? It's important to think big here, and not reject ideas just because we don't know (yet) how to achieve them.

2. Who should we enlist to accomplish it.

This gets us out of thinking too selfishly about just what each us individiually can do. Enlist an army, recruiting from the whole world. Think resourcefully. If you could work with the best people for the job, who would they be?

3. What historical models can we look to?

Maybe we can learn from history. I think we should look at successful models of major social reform. Other countries have much better public attitudes toward math. How did they do it?

4. What existing trends can we ride on?

You can't push a wave, but you can surf a wave. The best way to start a new trend is to recognize what is already in the air and piggyback on it.

5. Think big

We chronically think too small, and need to push ourselves to think bigger. I perpetually see people in education think too small, and too slow. No wonder classrooms have barely changed in over 100 years. For instance, I see some wonderful annual public math events. But there is no followup between sessions, or coordinating with other efforts. At best, it will shift things a couple percent in 10 years. I want a much bigger shift, faster. Don't settle for less. We've got work to do.

6. And think bigger than math

If we make people love math at the expense of the arts, we fail, just as in current universities interest in computer science and high tech has almost eradicated students majoring in humanities.



And now that I've covered the importance of starting with the problem, here are a few possible solutions. All start with the goal of majorly shifting public opinion. 

1. Start a math recovery movement. Most adults were abused mathematically as kids. As a dancer friend said to me, being told you are a girl so you are no good at math is tantamount to being told you aren't human. After all, our ability to think is what makes us special as animals, and mathematics is a quintessential example of what human thought is capable of. Everyone has a right to mathematical literacy.

2. Get people to tell their "math story". If you ask people to tell their "math story", most people will tell you a specific, emotionally intense story of THE moment when the door to math was slammed in their face. Some will tell the moment when the door was opened. Either way, the first step toward opening up dialog is for people to start talking about the experiences that formed their attitudes toward math, and to realize that they are not alone in their suffering.

3. Go on Oprah. Math abuse is a national crisis with personal and social consequences. Go straight to the most powerful megaphone for social change.

4. Start math makeovers. Stage a web-based reality show where victims of math abuse are given a 2-week math makeover by a skilled team of teachers. The end of the program shows the person recovering their confidence by doing something mathematical that they want to do, but didn't think they could, cheered on by friends and family.

5. Have celebrities speak outDanica McKellar is an actress using her star power to speak out about math. She's written several wonderful math books aimed directly at teen girls, with titles like "Math Doesn't Suck." She’s not the first actress/mathematician; Hedy Lamarr was also co-inventor of spread spectrum technology later adopted by the Navy, a version of which now appears in Bluetooth and Wifi.

6. Start math art festivals that celebrate all the ways math appears in the world, especially math, art, dance, theater, performing arts. The Bridges conference already does this, as does National Maths week in Ireland. Spread it!

7. Math trails. Math trails are docent-led group tours through a city space in which people observe mathematics in their environment, and are encouraged to ask their own questions. 

8. Create a literature of mathematics. Our culture supports widespread literacy by creating a rich (and profitable) literature of books for kids. Games and puzzles (and problem-sovling stories) are the literature of math. Mathical is a new annual award recognizing kid's math literature. Keep going. Scholastic should add math books and games to their school fund-raising book sales. I'm starting an effort to package groups of good math games and books for use by schools, parent groups, and community centers. Work through libraries to make this a thing.

9. Do math with your childBedtimemath.org is already doing this. We have a national value that reading to your child at night promotes literacy. The equivalent for math is doing games and puzzles, and reading math stories with your kids.

10. Flame Challenge. Alan Alda has started a wonderful venue for promoting public interest in science and medicine. Use the same strategies to promote math too.

11. Make it into a game. Make doing math a game that is so deeply compelling that people want to play it and keep getting better at it. If SimCity can make urban planning into a hit game, we can do the same for math.

12. Give away money. Well, that's one way to get attention. The Clay Institute established the million-dollar Millenium Prize Problems to "elevate in the consciousness of the general public the fact that in mathematics, the frontier is still open and abounds in important unsolved problems; to emphasize the importance of working towards a solution of the deepest, most difficult problems; and to recognize achievement in mathematics of historical magnitude." Many cash prizes await those who solve problems left by the prolific mathematician Paul Erdös; I'd love to see a web site that aggregates and publicizes all the math prizes, and includes both small and large problems accessible to a wide range of skill levels.