STEVEN STROGATZ: One of the things about math that I love the most is its really uncanny ability to reveal patterns-- hidden patterns in our everyday lives, in nature, in the world around us. There's a secret universe out there that you can't see with your eyes. You can only see it if you know math. And I feel like those of us who do know math are let behind the curtain into this invisible, fantastically patterned, and beautiful world.
And within that world, there are connections between things that don't seem connected-- like how fireflies can start flashing in unison by the thousands. You have these enormous displays of trees full of, really, not very clever insects that somehow manage to organize themselves into this fantastic thing-- like the Rockettes kicking their legs. These are fireflies, all flashing on and off in perfect time. And how they do it turns out to be a math problem, not a biology problem.
But then you could say, what's the point of that, practically speaking? And engineering colleagues here at Cornell have figured out how to use the work that we did about fireflies getting in sync to make little electronic clocks get in sync in a way that turns out to be important in distributed computing and sensor networks. And this is the fantastic thing with math-- that it's transcendent. I mean, the same patterns occur in fireflies, and sleep cycles, and sensor networks. And the specialists in those subjects don't know that. The mathematicians know it, because we're the birds flying overhead, and we can see all these connections by virtue of our abstract nature.
Abstraction is tremendously powerful, because it takes away all the details and lets you see the essential thing that provides connections, and commonality, and patterns. So for me, that's the great pleasure of math. It's the subject where patterns-- hidden patterns-- are revealed. So I wrote a book about how things get in sync in nature, and in technology, and in the world around us. And around that time, a new radio show was starting on NPR, called Radio Lab.
SPEAKER 2: You're listening to Radio Lab.
SPEAKER 3: What interests Steve Strogatz, a mathematician at Cornell University, is that there are places in the world where fireflies don't just flash randomly like we're used to. They somehow flash together.
STEVEN STROGATZ: How can order come out of disorder? This is the big, big mystery of science-- I think bigger than black holes, or bigger than superstrings.
Then with being on the radio, people started to recognize my voice or my storytelling. And little by little, I kind of got to have a brand as-- this is the guy you talk to if you want to talk about math. I'm trying to think, how is-- I've had a chance to speak to audiences at Ted or at the Aspen Ideas Festival. It's been a great pleasure to write for the New York Times. The New Yorker has started asking me to write for them-- The Guardian and The Telegraph, The Washington Post. You would normally expect math as a dud. People don't really want to read about math. And in fact, the opposite is true. If you present math the way it really is-- this fantastic expression of human creativity and ingenuity-- people do want to read that.
The invitations keep coming. And I'm so lucky to be given these chances. This is something wonderful about Cornell-- that we mean it when we say that-- this is any person, any study, and not even just on our campus-- this can be any person anywhere, we're going to help you understand the world, the science of the world, the humanities, through our outreach efforts.
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Cornell professors are often sought after by the media for their expertise and passion. Steven Strogatz communicates the beauty of math not only to students, but also to the public through books, TED Talks and publications like the New York Times.