I’ve just spent pretty much exactly a day in Berlin. The reason for that was that I had applied to participate in a programme for scientists to learn the trade of a science journalist. As I’ve been interested in journalism for a long time but there’s never been an opportunity to really get into it in the course of my studies, staying abroad and so on, this programme looked like it was made specifically for me. So after ending in an application with two small sample texts I had written, I was happy to be invited for the second round of the application process which took place in Berlin today.
Since I had never formally applied for things outside university, I was sure to check with my friend Birgit who trains people for job applications prior to going there. She had loads of advice on how to get the formalities right. But I suspected that was going to be only moderately useful in this setting where I’m not going for some big-money industry job but rather applying for the opportunity to take part in a course to learn something along with some newspaper internships.
That’s much more modest and it also seems to imply that the people you deal with are more friendly and more relaxed. In fact the whole process was. We first had to work on some press texts – bringing one into shape and writing a text on the other, both while staying within a certain length limit. One of the texts was really horrible, containing loads of quotes from some guy who was full of superfluous expressions. It might have been best to rewrite the complete text without any quote from the guy just to get rid of that mess, but unfortunately that wasn’t the task which just asked us to shorten it.
Then there was lunch and everybody was in for a short interview in which a handful of journalists and the guys running the programme asked questions. The time passed really quickly during that one and we spoke a lot about maths in science journalism. While newspapers are apparently keen to have maths texts (and in the past week we’ve had a number of great maths articles on the occasion of Gödel’s hundredth birthday!), I am a bit sceptical on that issue. So I had to explain why – my point there being that I have yet to see regular writing on pure mathematics that is short, correct and can be understood by a layperson.
My impression is that it’s very hard to present maths that go beyond the second year of university in that way. ‘Hard’ in the sense of pretty much impossible. The language we use in mathematics is very abstract and formal and hard to understand right away. Just as an example, imagine there’s an interesting fact that has been discovered for hyperkähler manifolds. How should you possibly speak about that when the meaning of ‘hyperkähler’ isn’t even known to all mathematicians and when you need to know what ‘Kähler’ means to appreciate that; for which in turn you need to know about things like symplectic forms and complex structures; and to appreciate those you should probably feel comfortable when talking about things like manifolds and differential forms (which you could learn about in your second year of university).
Perhaps that illustrates how there is no (obvious?) way to even speak about the theorems to the public. You’ll just get muddled up in explaining definition after definition and concept after concept with most people stopping to first understand and then pay attention pretty soon.
Of course there remains plenty of room for writing about maths – in the applied areas for example, where the applications might be seen in real life (rather than in abstract and advanced areas of physics, say). Or in explaining some simple and well known problems like Pythagoras’ theorem or the infamous goat problem or some other number theory or classical geometry problems. Those are cool without doubt (just get some book by Ian Stewart to read about them in a well-presented way… perhaps I should put a little quiz up here soon). They might even point to current problems – just like Pythagoras’ theorem points to Fermat’s last theorem &ndash but they won’t really bring you close to current research and its difficulties.
Thus, I find writing about maths a bit tricky as there seems to be no way to present the current progress in a way that can be consumed by the public. All the successful writing of maths seems to limit itself to ‘old’ problems with some pointers to the newer stuff (cf. Ian Stewart) or to social studies of mathematicians (cf. Simon Singh’s book on Fermat’s Last Theorem). As interesting as those may be and as great a job as they may do for communicating that there is drama in maths, they are quite different from the journalism that is possible for other sciences.
In those, people can often relate to the results in some way. There may be relations to illnesses or to new materials, results may be related to food or there could be cloned sheep. While those topics are highly complex and technical when treated in detail, they also have this very accessible surface which is often hard to find in (pure) mathematics.
At the end of the interview, they asked their ‘fun survey question’: Atomic energy: yes please or no thanks? Apparently I was one of the few people to just answer ‘no thanks’. Usually people tend to elaborate and give reasons, I suppose. I guess that’s a bit of a deformation professionelle to answer the question you’re asked and no more.
They said they’ll make up their mind soon. I thought the interview was all right. But so thought everybody else. Let’s hope things work out!
While in Berlin, I also used the opportunity to see some friends. Arriving the night before the interview, I first met Jörg and we had an excellent pizza at the 12 Apostel – a place that Mona had shown me a while back. That place is in the West and – yikes! – Berlin’s West is just strange. It really looks like time stopped there in the 1980s.
As Jörg was having his nice racing bike with him, we needed to take care of that as parking it at the railway station would pretty much ensure that (parts of) it will be stolen before we return. But on our way we passed some Jewish centre and noticed that the police were there to protect it (I wonder whether there’ve been threats or suchlike or whether there was someone important around there or whether it’s just a precaution to make sure we won’t get bad press abroad). So we figured that we could just lock the bike right there as nobody would steal it with the police standing right there. We briefly considered giving the policeman a tip when returning but then assumed that this kind of humour wouldn’t go down to well – particularly as he probably didn’t even notice his important role in this.
After that I stayed at Claus and Meike’s place for the night – my ‘home away from home’ in Berlin. It’s always great to be there, although time was really tight this time with me only arriving after eleven and everybody being in for an early start today.
This morning, I noticed that it would be a really perfect day – sun all the time and finally temperatures about the magic 20° mark. Unfortunately it had been around 5° when I left home yesterday morning and I was wearing a long coat and had to carry my luggage. When meeting Yassin after the interview, it was pretty cool though: We had an iced coffee outside in the sun, listening to the nearby construction site and looking at the Brandenburg gate.
On my way there I passed the U.S. embassy. And it’s just pathetic. Or, if you’re American and want to know why people think your country sucks while France, say, rules, you don’t need to look as far as the difference between foie gras and invading Iraq… you just need to stroll through Berlin. The U.S. embassy is in a building and the streets next to that building can’t be used by cars. In fact, the embassy has built a really ugly fence across the street with ‘no photography’ signs on it (I wonder whether they can really enforce that – shouldn’t I be able to take photos anywhere in public?) twenty metres away from the building. It looks a bit like a prison because of that. (Check Google Maps! – I’m not sure it’s the current construction on their photos and the fence may be hard to see from above, though) Sure, if U.S. diplomats think their country fucked up so badly that this kind of paranoia is necessary, they should protect themselves. But that shouldn’t make the centre of our capital uglier. They should rather move their embassy to some ‘safe’ place outside town where they can have fences that don’t get into the way. They better make sure to get all the ‘security’ hidden away inside the new building they are going to get.
Walking on a little, you’ll pass the British embassy which is a bit better than the U.S., but still bad. They don’t have ugly fences ruining the whole road but the road in front of their embassy can’t be used by cars nonetheless. A little stroll further, you’ll arrive at the French embassy right at the Brandenburg gate. And – surprise! – it’s just a building with a French flag hanging out. You can walk and look around as you wish.
Good luck with the whole thing. With a high barrier for entry, one would hope that you will be shuttled into a job right after the course. Is that the way it works?
As for the question, “Atomic energy: yes please or no thanks?” I would have gone with “yes please”, with a caveat that it has to be portable enough to store in my pants, without any long-term health effects.
Yeah, let’s hope this works out nicely. We were told that the job situation in journalism isn’t glamourous enough to even hope for being ‘shuttled into a job’. They will help you get to know people though, which is probably all you can realistically ask for.
Aha, your answer on atomic energy needed some extra explanations! Besides I’d be more worried about short-term health effects. In a hundred years I’ll be dead no-matter how good that reactor in my pocket was.
And how silly would such a reactor be? You’d have to plug things like your fridge into something you are carrying around all the time. ;)
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