On SIAM News: Writing for Mass Media: You’re Better Positioned than You Think

From an article workshopped by SNF and recently featured in the newsletter of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics:

Every researcher is also part writer. It’s a label that may be unfamiliar or even unwelcome to many graduate students, professors, and industry scientists. But between grants, papers, and reports to higher-ups, writing is undeniably a huge part of research.

Yet somehow, even with all that practice, the thought of writing for a mass-market magazine or news site can seem like a leap into a world so foreign that it’s unapproachable. The apparent chasm between us and a broader audience is further widened by the mathematical intensiveness of our work.

After all, what layperson wants to read about math? Thousands, it turns out, with appropriate translation, and the barriers to reaching them are lower than you might think. Over the course of my Ph.D. in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), I’ve been increasingly drawn to science writing, culminating in an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Mass Media Fellowship this past summer at Scientific American. I’ve found the most daunting obstacles to be largely illusory, vanishing as soon as I was nudged into confronting them. And not only was my background not an impediment, it proved to be an unexpected boon; my mathematical training opened up otherwise impenetrable stories to me — and to thousands of readers by extension.

Check out the full piece on the SIAM website.

The most “boring” thing you’ve probably never heard of

There are parts of the world where these things have killed hundreds of people. They have names like “The Seven Ghosts” and “The Silver Dragon”. People come from all over the planet to see if they can tame these “beasts.” And yet, few have heard of them. I’m talking about “bores”—more specifically, “tidal bores.”

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On Popular Mechanics: How the 404 Error Created the World Wide Web

Another SNF-workshopped article on the Popular Mechanics blog:

It’s the bane of every web surfer, the internet’s version of fingernails on the chalkboard. Click almost any link that dates back to pre-2005 and brace for the inevitable: “HTTP 404 Not Found.”

Anyone who’s spent time near an internet connection is familiar with the 404 error, a webserver’s way of saying you’ve reached a dead end. What’s less well known is that this very error is what allowed the World Wide Web to exist in the first place.

Read the whole article on the Popular Mechanics website.

Billion Dollar Meme

Do you remember this piece of shoddy math from when the Powerball made it to more than a billion dollars back in early 2016?


The creator suggested that instead of only giving the winnings of the lottery to the winners of the lottery, we should divide it evenly to everyone in the country.  If everyone in the U.S. received 4.33 million dollars, poverty in this country certainly would be solved! Continue reading

On SciAm guest blogs: The Unexpected Dangers of Recreational Counting

Magician with cards

Image by Flickr user jin.thai, CC BY 2.0

From an article reviewed by SNF and posted yesterday on Scientific American’s guest blog:

The cleverest card trick I’ve ever seen was performed not by a magician, but by a math professor.

A teaching assistant (let’s call him Nick), acting as magician’s assistant, recruited five student participants. Each student picked a card from a 52-card deck and handed it back to Nick, face up but invisible to Tom, the professor. Nick laid out four of these cards in front of Tom. To our astonishment, Tom immediately identified the missing fifth card.

The professor revealed the trick at the end of class. But when I came back to my dorm, bursting with excitement, my suitemate Benjamin refused to let me explain it; he had to figure this out on his own. He wandered off to his room muttering to himself, blissfully unaware that within twenty-four hours, this puzzle would prove disastrous to his dignity.

Read the whole article on the Scientific American website.

Not All Waste Should Be Wasted

The heat of an Alabama summer afternoon certainly wasn’t helping the aroma of several million gallons of raw and partially treated sewage.  This field trip to the Auburn Wastewater Treatment Plant was always the worst one I led for my Intro to Environmental Engineering class.  Fortunately, we were near the end of the process and far from the most fragrant part of the plant.  At this point the wastewater had been treated by the sludge, which is a “fancy” name for the bacteria that eat the organics in the wastewater. The sludge had been separated out of the treated water, the bacteria had eaten each other, and the remainder had just been pressed to remove excess moisture.

We were standing next to a twelve-foot-tall pile of biosolids, the dewatered bacteria, when the tour guide pulled his usual stunt.  He took an ungloved hand and stuck it into the pile, pulling out a handful of what appeared to be a dark, rich soil.  The class reacted the way classes on these trip always react:  with revulsion.  That’s how people respond to things recovered from wastewater, completely unaware of how valuable they can be.      

The Great Poop Train

Biosolids look like rich soil because they are rich in nitrogen and organics, which are beneficial for the growth of plants.  But that doesn’t make them any more desirable to keep around, and cities often go to great lengths to dispose of them.  By 1986, New York City completed its 14 wastewater treatment plants.  The resulting wastewater system handled 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater produced every day, creating several thousand tons of biosolids. So the city set out to find somewhere to get rid of it.  At first, it was dumped into the ocean.  But in 1988, the Environmental Protection Agency told the city they had to stop dumping and find a good use for the biosolids to make amends for their previous polluting ways.  

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The Institutional Road to Maternity Leave for Carnegie Mellon University

CMU's "Walking to the Sky"

CMU’s “Walking to the Sky”

In July 2014, Megan Leitch, a civil engineering doctoral candidate at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), met with her adviser to negotiate a leave of absence. At the time, CMU allowed graduate students time off during official university holidays, and had a policy for unpaid leave if more than a week was desired. But Megan was interested in a type of leave that was not addressed: maternity leave.

“Even though I knew he would be OK with it, I still was nervous to tell [my adviser] I was pregnant,” says Megan. “I ended up just walking into his office and blurting it out.”
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