Steven Strogatz teaches math to the masses

Cornell University


Steven Strogatz


Strogatz is a Cornell University mathematics professor and the author of the new book “The Joy of x: A Guided Tour of Math, From One to Infinity,” which sprung from his online series for The New York Times “The Elements of Math.” He kicked off a new series for the Times, “Me, Myself and Math,” last month. Through stories, pictures, and pop culture references, his writing attempts to make math accessible to those who have dismissed it. On Oct. 2 he will be participating in the Writing Summit at Dartmouth College, before giving talks at Amherst College on Oct. 4 and Harvard Book Store on Oct. 5.

Q. How did The New York Times series turn into a book?


A. Once it started to run, the publishers jumped on it, really. I wasn’t even thinking of it in terms of a book, but within a few weeks my agent said, “Where’s the proposal?” It wasn’t clear at all this series would work with the public, given the widespread mathphobia.

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Q. When did you realize the public was indeed responding to it?

A. That was immediate. . . . There was a phrase I used, that there might be people who are interested in a second chance at math, and that got to them.

Q. What do people miss out on by ignoring math?

A. To me, it’s just a beautiful pleasure to learn and think about math, in the way people like music. You usually don’t have to make a strong case that music is beautiful; it’s just obvious. [People wonder,] “Why do I need to learn algebra? I’m never going to use this.” I’m tempted to ask, “What’s the use of music?” If you can’t see this as worthwhile, [see it as] something that’s transcendentally beautiful. Sometimes I get a chill listening to Bach suites; I feel that perfection in a certain proof of the Pythagorean Theorem. You also can appreciate nature much more. This really is out there in the world. Whether you’re looking at fingerprints or parts of the body, things start to come alive when you see the patterns in them.


Sometimes the argument is made that someone needs to learn math to be an informed citizen. I think honestly you don’t need to do it; most people function perfectly fine. . . . This is worth learning for the same reason poetry is worth having.

Q. Did you approach the book with a particular kind of learner in mind?

A. I think there are many roads to mathematical joy. I have a very catholic approach. I really try to hit every conceivable button, so I hit everyone’s button eventually. I think just about everybody has one button. . . . I certainly think everyone can enjoy the math they already do know, both for their own pleasure and to see how it fits into the universe and society.

Q. Why do you think math isn’t typically taught in this manner?

A. I’m not sure. It could be, and probably should be. That gets into questions of politics of education. If you did more of what I did, you wouldn’t cover as much. When I had some teachers in high school, they didn’t have to prepare us for tests. They taught us what they felt they should teach us, and that worked pretty well. The pressure to meet standardized tests is one problem. There’s also a fair number of people teaching math who don’t have any feeling for math. If the teacher doesn’t get it, the students will have a hard time getting it too.


Q. How does your new series for the Times, “Me, Myself and Math,” differ from the first one?

‘I wanted to connect math to people in a way that will be meaningful — math all about you, math as it relates to the reader, their own body.’

A. The first series took the point of view that there’s an enormous landscape, so let’s just take a walk through it. I didn’t think I could do that again. I wanted to connect math to people in a way that will be meaningful — math all about you, math as it relates to the reader, their own body. It’s a very egocentric view of math. Not my ego, the reader’s ego. I tried to relate math to the subject we all love: ourselves.

Q. Could this one turn into a book, as well?

A. I don’t see a book length. I think it’s a good little snack.

Andrew Doerfler