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.)