Your job title?
Author, Science Communicator, Physicist
I have worked as a writer and “number cruncher” throughout my career, and recently wrote the book, Do The Math!, a collection of amusing anecdotes and interesting experiences of the mathematical kind. Numeracy has never been more important than in today’s increasingly number-filled world, and I enjoy finding non-traditional ways to help the mathematically fearful.
The secret is to be creative. Can you win game shows using probabilities? Are North American sports leagues better than those in Europe? Can No. 1 chart toppers explain increasing world poverty? Can we see underlying binomial patterns in pop art and in so doing make math less daunting? If you do the math you can work out the answers.
When I heard a nightly news reporter state that “inflation is going down but we haven’t yet seen a corresponding decrease in prices,” I knew I could use the concepts of distance and velocity in a breaking car to explain the misconception. Graphs of the “Tortoise and the Hare” fable helped me to explain derivatives. Based on the book, I now write articles on statistics, economics, and science for various publications.
Open a newspaper and you’ll find many confusing statistics that need to be verified. In my job, I have to make sure that the numbers make sense before I report on them, using basic math, creating a spreadsheet from a government fact sheet, even simulating a projection analysis. I regularly work out percentages, calculate odds, and apply various formulae.
I have written about pharmaceutical companies setting up in Ireland and Britain to avoid paying American taxes, the fairness of sports leagues, the ethics of lotteries, all stories that rely on numbers and statistics, and was even asked to debunk a supposed over-unity, perpetual motion device (simply plug the output into the input and you will eventually get more energy than exists, a logical impossibility).
One article was about MMR vaccines, climate data, GMOs, and how statistics can be used to fit any conclusion, controversial science stuff that some people don’t agree with, and I got many comments for and against. The important thing was a debate about the issues, as people waded in with their opinions.
I recently finished an article on global warming as a prelude to the upcoming COP21 Conference in Paris, and had to wade through mounds of data and research, often with conflicting political views. With the internet, it is easy to find lots of information, but being able to cast a critical mathematical eye is essential to ensure the validity. Climate change is a controversial subject, but I knew I could comfortably quote from the International Energy Agency report that global photovoltaic solar cell capacity is 177 GW, with Europe (70 GW), China (10.6 GW), and a rapidly growing Japan (9.7 GW) leading the way. Knowing the math and science is essential to communicate ideas with confidence.
I wouldn’t be able to do my job without a sound mathematical footing. At high school (in Canada), I studied Calculus, Relations and Functions, and Probability, and went on to do a B. Sc. in Physics at the University of Waterloo. After working as a computational analyst and programmer, I did a Ph. D. at University College Dublin, where I learned more about how best to communicate ideas to both a technical and general audience, through journal papers, articles, helping out at the Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition, and the occasional public demonstrations.
Being innumerate is no more acceptable today than being illiterate. The important thing is to always ask why and to check the answers you get, whatever the source. Communicating math and science in interesting, informative ways is challenging, but good mathematical literacy is essential to get your point across.