Public Engagement

'What is a Poet?...a human speaking to humanity: a human, it is true, endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among humankind; a human pleased with their own passions and volitions, and who rejoices more than others in the spirit of life that is in them; delighting to contemplate similar volitions and passions as manifested in the goings-on of the Universe, and habitually impelled to create them where they do not find them.'

Photo Credit: The KAOS Foundation

I've been working fairly seriously on public engagement since  2010. It was then that I gave a small collection of talks and workshops with my old friend Hyungju Park sponsored by Kihyong Lee of Interpark Corporation. In particular, I gave a Korean-style 'talk concert' in 2012 that was fairly well-received. These events spurred on the creation of the KAOS Foundation, with generous funding from Interpark, at present the most active supporter in Korea of public engagement  activities in the natural sciences. In 2016-17, I was scientific coordinator with Hyungju Park for the programme 'Connecting Insight' sponsored by the Naver Connect Foundation with the goal of organising public lectures and training workshops for teachers as well as developing alternative curricula for schoolchildren. In 2019, Donga Science commemorated its 400th issue by selecting a list of Seven Power Scientists of Korea, in which I was included with special citation of my outreach activities.

I've enjoyed talking about mathematics with non-mathematicians, especially people who imagine themselves to be not very good at it, at least since my teen years. In those days, I was quite bad myself at most kinds of mathematics, but did have exposure to certain aspects of logic, mostly by way of Martin Gardner's columns in the Scientific American. One of them led me to the wonderful book by Raymond Smullyan. As was explained by Gardner, Smullyan's book is actually an introduction to the famous incompleteness theorem of Kurt Goedel that takes the unsuspecting reader to the heart of the subject through a sequence of puzzles. After reading it, I had great fun posing problems about Knights and Knaves, Dracula, and Inspector Craig to friends and relatives. After I started mathematics in earnest, for a long while, my experience with public engagement was intermittent. In the 1990s, when I was teaching in New York city, I was fortunate enough to visit an experimental primary school a few times and speak to young children about shapes. After having my own children, I greatly enjoyed visiting their schools to speak about accessible topics at the level of primary or secondary schools. Given this personal history, it can only be a true pleasure and a privilege to be given ample opportunity to talk  about mathematics with people from all walks of life at this point in life.

I am still trying to figure out how best to organise the PE material I've accumulated over the years. At present, I've haphazardly assembled a scattered collection of articles, videos,  and interviews that I will try to make more systematic and complete one of these days.

Eventually, the interest in public engagement resulted in a rather large number of books.

It started out with a collection of letters to my son I wrote during travel, mostly to allay my own sense of longing. I remembered on the plane a book by Isabel Allende called 'Paula'. There, the author's daughter is in hospital dying of porphyria and she finds her emotions settle down somewhat when she write letters about her life and memories addressed to the unconscious daughter. Obviously, separation for a few months can't be compared to losing a child altogether. Nevertheless, the sense of peace that arose from writing seemed to work even for me. I am truly grateful to the translator, Hwang Geun Ha, for her careful and meticulous work. Woongjin Books was gracious enough to publish recently a revised edition, shown in the picture here. 

Sad to say, even though I'm quite attached to this book and have received a gratifying amount of positive feedback, I can't say it was too successful on the market.

My big break as an author came in 2018, when 'The Moment You Need Mathematics' was published and reached the bestseller list for general books in Korea, staying in the top 20 for 8 weeks in a row. I'm told this had never happened before for a book on mathematics for the public. I have also been told that it kicked off a kind of boom in popularisation of mathematics within the Korean market.  It's still doing reasonably well. 

I owe this to many other people, especially two editors from Influential Publishing, Dayee Jeong and Bokyeong Kim. They spent many hours taking notes during the lectures I gave on the subjects appearing in the book. We worked on these notes together through many iterations to make them publishable. I was truly impressed and grateful that two people with backgrounds in literature had the patience and foresight necessary to subject themselves to such a process.

Thanks to this book's success, the opportunities to meet people who would like to have some contact with mathematics increased greatly. I now lecture or lead workshops in many different kinds of venues, and have quite a bit oif freedom to consider possibilities for new projects. I've  created slides for many of my 'popular' talks, which I'll eventually try to upload. I should admit that I have in the past promised many people at lectures to make such slides available. I am truly sorry about the delay.

Discussing mathematics with Schroedinger's cat

Artwork by Hong Seung Woo

The outreach work I most enjoy is still with students and teachers. So if you would like me to speak at your school do let me know. Most of my experience is with students in Korea, but I have given talks at schools in London and Oxford, as well as a set of masterclasses in the Coventry area during the Covid-19 lockdown. I am especially interested in interacting with schools in areas of the country that have historically had difficulty sending students to Russell group universities. For this, I have had a good deal of experience during open days at Merton College, Oxford.

I feel like I should organise useful resources for people interested in mathematics. For now, I've created a page with the imaginative name

Here are some pictures of my cat Star:

Artwork by Hong Seung Woo

If they make you curious, that's good! I am secretly advertising.