April 23 Day 46: Storytellers needed

Susan D’Agostino’s (@susan_dagostino) beautiful interview with Donald Knuth, Computer Scientist Donald Knuth Can’t Stop Telling Stories in Quanta Magazine reinforces the power of story-telling. Through it we can attract those that would otherwise think of our disciplines as dry and inaccessible.

If I could visit my office, I would see that the mathematical books there fall into several categories: research monographs or edited volumes that primarily communicate newer results, textbooks to teach a subject, expository books (often published by the MAA) to promote a subject to a broader audience, and collections of problems. Categories are not exclusive. Some problem books can be used to teach a subject or expository books can communicate recent results. But generally speaking, the closer a work is to the cutting-edge, the more likely it is to be written in a statement-proof style with minimal embellishment or exposition. Somehow we tell ourselves that “the mathematics speaks for itself.” Regardless of a work’s categorization or target audience, to promote our subject we must pay special attention to our exposition and the stories we tell because when parts of the story are absent, the narrative becomes fragmented and readers are lost.

There has been a recent trend in publication to humanize mathematics—telling stories that show the subjects and authors as vulnerable, flawed, and imperfect—in effect showing that mathematics belongs to everyone. Some of my personal favorites include:

Mathematics for Human Flourishing by Francis Su,

How to Free your Inner Mathematician by Susan D’Agostino, and

Living Proof: Stories of Resilience Along the Mathematical Journey edited by Allison Henrich, Emille Lawrence, Matthew Pons, and David Taylor.

In my isolation, I frequently find myself revisiting each one of these marvelous tales of mathematics. I find comfort in their words. I love the mathematics. I love the stories. And I agree whole-heartedly with Donald Knuth, “The best way to communicate from one human being to another is through story.” Story is everything and we must be the storytellers of our discipline to the world.

Published by Jenny Quinn

Mathematician. Mother. Wife. Leader. I am a professor of mathematics at the University of Washington Tacoma. Mother of Anson and Zachary. Wife to Mark. President of the Mathematical Association of America.

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