Temple mathematician John Allen Paulos honored by AAAS for promoting understanding of science

02/06/04

Miracles, gun control, affirmative action, religion, the Kennedy family, and math tests for presidential candidates aren't exactly the typical topics for a mathematician. But for Temple University mathematics professor John Allen Paulos, they're just part of the numbers game.

As an author and columnist, Paulos' public discussions of such diverse--and often controversial--subjects have made him a nationally recognized and award-winning commentator on how mathematics and numbers are portrayed by the news media and their prevalence in everyday life.

"In my books, columns, and opinion pieces, I talk about topical events in the news that have a mathematical flavor, whether the stories deal with politics, economics, sports, or health care," says Paulos (http://www.math.temple.edu/paulos). "I discuss ways in which mathematics can be related to things that people are interested in because most people don't seem to be all that interested in mathematics per se."

In recognition of his being "one of the greatest mathematical storytellers of all time," the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has named Paulos recipient of the 2003 AAAS Award for Public Understanding of Science and Technology.

The award, established in 1987, will be presented Feb. 15 at AAAS' annual meeting in Seattle. Previous recipients of the award include Anthony Fauci for public understanding of AIDS (1988), Robert Ballard for his underwater discoveries (1989), Edward O. Wilson for the awareness of restoring and preserving the Earth's biodiversity (1994) and Carl Sagan for his work on astronomy (1995).

"I am particularly pleased to receive this award because it is for something that I do," says Paulos. "Sometimes one receives awards that are peripheral to one's activities and interests. But getting people to comprehend the impact of mathematics on their lives is a large part of what I do, so it is gratifying to be recognized for it."

A member of the mathematics faculty in Temple's College of Science and Technology since 1973, Paulos is a best-selling author, columnist, and public speaker.

He wrote two books, published by university presses in the early 1980s, that dealt with math, humor, and the philosophy of science. "They were kind of my first foray into areas not totally mathematical, at least in the narrow sense." But soon he found himself gravitating to his childhood fascination with newspapers.

"It struck me that a lot of the stories in the newspaper had a mathematical component that was usually obscured in the writing of the story," says Paulos, "and that people's innumeracy often blinded them to the real import of the story."

He wrote a piece on innumeracy for Newsweek that caught the eye of Paulos' future agent, who suggested that he expand it into a book.

"I hired him and he sold it to a commercial press," says Paulos, a resident of Center City Philadelphia.

Paulos' seven books, Mathematics and Humor (1980), I Think, Therefore I Laugh (1985), Innumeracy - Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences (1989), Beyond Numeracy - Ruminations of a Numbers Man (1991), A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper (1995), Once Upon a Number (1998), and A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market (2003), have won him critical acclaim and national exposure.

Innumeracy, which appeared on The New York Times' bestseller list for five months, was translated into 14 languages and Beyond Innumeracy was translated into six languages. A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper appeared on several bestseller lists, reaching No. 1 on Amazon.com. It was adapted into a four-part series by the BBC and was selected as one of the top 100 nonfiction books published in the English language since 1900 by Random House readers. Once Upon a Number was selected by the Los Angeles Times as one of the best nonfiction books of 1998.

His books have led Paulos to numerous television appearances over the years, including the MacNeil/Lehrer Show, the Today Show, the David Letterman Show; and more than 100 interviews on radio, including the Larry King Show and NPR's Fresh Air. Paulos, who earned his bachelor's degree and Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Wisconsin, also served as a member of the Philadelphia Daily News editorial board and contributes a monthly column, "Who's Counting" to ABCNews.com, where he regularly opines on mathematically flavored issues in the news. His other opinion pieces on topics ranging from the Unabomber and the stock market to the AirEgypt crash and World Trade Center attacks have appeared in newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times.

"I write different columns to achieve different goals," explains Paulos. "One goal is to impart knowledge, another is to make a difference by getting readers to talk about the topic in question, and a third goal is to be entertaining.

"People who write about popular science or mathematics usually make no effort to be entertaining," he contends. "There's a tendency to be overly earnest. I think it's okay to be funny--or at least try to be funny."

Paulos is also periodically called upon to be a news media source on statistical matters, including the 2000 election when he appeared on 20/20, Lehrer News Hour, and NBC Nightly News, and when his op-eds were cited by entities ranging from The New Yorker to the Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court to CNN commentator Jeff Greenfield.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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