Thoughts on Today

As promised, I was on daytime TV this week!  The clip is available for posterity at the Today Show website.

What’s interesting to me is the big discrepancy between the way this clip looked to a lot of my friends and colleagues and the way it felt actually to participate in it.  Many of my friends were disappointed that I didn’t say more, and wished the discussion had been at a higher mathematical level.

As for me, I walked out of the shoot feeling it had been a success.

Why the difference?

For one thing, Dr. Mrs. Q and I had been watching the show to get ready, and knew what to expect.  It was pretty clear that no serious math lecture was going to happen.  There was a planned question directed at me:  “How long will it take for someone to answer this question [generalized Fermat]?”  If that had happened, I had about 10 seconds planned in which I’d say “We don’t really know, and that’s what’s exciting, most of math remains a mystery even though we teach it in a way that makes it seem everything was settled centuries ago.”  And it would have been great to have said that!  But that would have been the absolute maximum amount of math possible to work into the segment.  And once you’re on the air, things move very quickly, and things are not very tightly tied to the cue cards.

Danica McKellar, who was on with me, handled the problem of content very intelligently; she understood perfectly well that it didn’t make sense to try to really explain a Diophantine question in the context of the show, so she made sure to tell viewers that they could read about it on her twitter feed, where she provided links to a full description.  That seems to me a totally sensible approach to conveying information about math on live national TV.  The thing we do in class is a great thing to do when you have an hour to talk to 200 people.  What you do when you have 10 seconds to talk to 2 million people is totally different.

What I wanted to accomplish on the show:

  • Give some sense that there still exist math problems we don’t know how to solve;
  • Demonstrate that mathematicians are not grubby almost-dead weirdos in robes, but normal people you might see on the street (or, in Danica’s case, even on the screen.)

Both of these seem like things you can totally do in 10 seconds, and things that are worth broadcasting to 2 million people if you get the chance.  I think we were only partially successful with the first goal, but did fine with the second.

There are a lot of different channels and I think that if we want to teach as much math as possible we have to broadcast on as many channels as we can get access to.  And each channel has its own rules.  My book is going to look really different from McKellar’s books, which in turn look really different from the Today show segment, and all three, of course, are drastically different from what we do in a classroom.  But every extra channel is a chance to transmit more math, or even just the mere idea that math is still happening.  The new Museum of Math in New York.  Sitcoms and movies and cop shows with mathy characters, even when the math is distorted or outright wrong.  Nim as an immunity challenge on Survivor.  Ubiquitous Sudoku.  I endorse it all!  If I knew a good way to set up a math booth at the Gathering of the Juggalos, I would totally do it.  (I was actually thinking of David Zureick-Brown for this, if he’s interested.)

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17 thoughts on “Thoughts on Today

  1. I couldn’t bring myself to watch the segment earlier. Now I did, and I realise why I am not in the target audience for daytime television.

    I think you got less than 20 words out in the whole segment.

  2. Allen K. says:

    Fucking diophantine equations, how do they work?

  3. JSE says:

    *checks whether it’s too late to change my graduate course title*

  4. Yiftach says:

    I have a feeling that if you would have shown up in a robe you would have got a lot more people to be interested in math.

  5. Nick Addington says:

    So has the fan mail started pouring in?

  6. First, of all, I’m offended that there was no link to the “Gathering of the Juggalos”, at the very least you could have offered this:

    Second, although I’m the hugest David Zureick-Brown fan out there, with the possible exception of his wife, I think we can all agree that, when it comes to the intersection of karaoke and wrestling, it’s 100% me.

  7. JSE says:

    photos_meet_the_man_who_cut_off_his.php is basically the definition of “I’m not clicking this,” Cathy.

  8. aetropolski says:

    I count myself among those who were disappointed when I watched the segment, although I now know my expectations were unreasonable. Out of curiosity, did you see a spike in website hits (assuming you keep track of such things, which I kind of assume everyone does…)? I’m really curious to know how many “normal people” (read: people who watch that show on a regular basis) actually decided to follow up after that segment.

  9. davidzb says:

    JSE, your participation at last year’s gathering looked like a lot of fun! (See I’m looking into setting up a booth now.

  10. Richard Séguin says:

    “Demonstrate that mathematicians are not grubby almost-dead weirdos in robes, but normal people you might see on the street (or, in Danica’s case, even on the screen.)”

    Yes, but I wonder about the suit. Bankers, politicians, and undertakers wear boring suits. How often do you see a mathematician in a suit? Not that I have much fashion sense myself though …

  11. Andrei C. says:

    Quoting from memory: “Danica McKellar, star of the show … author of best selling books … and Jordan Ellenberg, professor of mathematics [makes vomiting sound].” How the hell is this useful for people’s perception of mathematics?

  12. JSE says:

    Anastasia: no notable boost in web traffic, though someone did recognize me at the farmer’s market. (Then she yelled at her husband, “I TOLD YOU THAT WAS HIM!”)

    Andrei: The question is, is this useful relative to the usual situation of math not being mentioned at all? I say yes, but your opinion may differ. Also, didn’t I make a nice shocked face in response to KLG’s fake vomit?

  13. Idith Kisin says:

    No, Jordan, you laughed in response to KLG, like you thought it was funny. I would have said “You should watch who you “blachhh” when you’re married to someone 22 years older than you.”

  14. Willie Wong says:

    @Andrei and @Idith: for better of for worse, that could not have done much to harm people’s perception of mathematics. Every other time I fly internationally to the UK or to the US, the passport control agent’s reaction to my chosen profession is not all that different from KLG’s. I think KLG’s behaviour speaks more about Americans (and American media) than anything else: there is the type of show where the host makes fun of the guest by directly denigrating them, and there is the type of show where the host makes fun of the guest by subtly letting the guest insult himself; one of the two is much more common on American TV.

  15. Did you notice that the page you link to has you as “Jordan Ellensburg”?

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