Science Book a Day Interviews Jordan Ellenberg


Special thanks to Jordan Ellenberg for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking

Jordan Ellenberg grew up in Potomac, MD, the child of two statisticians. He excelled in mathematics from a young age, and competed for the U.S. in the International Mathematical Olympiad three times, winning two gold medals and a silver. He went to college at Harvard, got a master’s degree in fiction writing from Johns Hopkins, and then returned to Harvard for his Ph.D. in math. Ellenberg has been writing for a general audience about math for more than fifteen years; his work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, theWashington PostWiredThe Believer, and the Boston Globe, and he is the author of the “Do the Math” column in Slate. – Adapted from Jordan’s Homepage

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#1 – What was the impetus for How not to be wrong?

I’ve been writing about math for a general audience for a long time, but I felt there were a lot of things I couldn’t do in the short magazine format.  In a small space you can’t really stretch out and follow an argument through all of its channels — and you can’t really depict the interconnectedness between different ideas that’s so characteristic of math.

#2 – In your book, are you advocating that people should be more mathematically literate? Why should people be more literate?

It’s like asking “why should people use their sense of smell?”  The mathematical way of thought has been part of human thought for as long as history records.  It’s a fundamental part of the way we understand the things we experience.

#3 – How did you writing your column Do the math inform what you wrote in your book?

Writing for Slate and other non-academic publications taught me a ton about how to explain mathematical ideas to the general public.  Maybe the most important lesson I learned is that it’s better to really get your hands dirty and explain a simple idea all the way to the bottom than it is to try to engage with something more technical.  When you try to address something really technical, you often end up writing something that makes sense to other mathematicians but gives a completely wrong impression to outsiders.

#4 – You avoid using equations and mathematical jargon in your book. How do the mathematically challenged respond to you about your book?

The book is designed to be readable to a wide range of audiences.  I think there’s stuff in it that’ll be new to a lot of professional mathematicians (because it was new to me!)  And I also think that much or even most of it is accessible to people with very little formal math background.  There are a few places where the book really digs in and goes deep, but I tried to set it up so that you’re never far away from the beginning of a new story or a new idea.

#5 – Are you working on any new projects/books you can tell us about?

Right now I’m enjoying getting back to a lot of research projects that have been back-burnered for a few months with the launch of the book!  I could tell you about them, but you’d have to care about stable cohomology of moduli spaces or Castelnuovo-Mumford regularity or non-reduced Kakeya problems….

[Image Credit: Mats Rudels @ ]