“A mathematician and a physicist walk into Burning Man…” could be the start of a really good joke. Instead, it was just a real-life scenario for our anonymous physicist (we’ll call him “P”) and his mathematician friend. A little nervous that Burning Man wouldn’t be their scene, P & M decided to set up a tent and embrace their inner nerd. Burning Man runs off of a gift economy and P & M decided they wanted to contribute to that.
“Basically I’ve spent so much time just learning and being in school that I don’t have many applicable skills,” P tells us with a laugh. “The only thing we had to give is, we know a bunch of math and physics. So we set up a booth.”
To the duo’s surprise, the booth was a huge hit. But what they noticed even more than the question seekers were the number of festival goers who just wanted to hang around and listen to the answers. It made them realize that there wasn’t much of an outlet for regular people to ask their questions about math/physics and get comprehensible answers back.
“I think everybody’s had the experience,” P explains, “where you’re taking a class, and the professor or the teacher is saying things as though they should be obvious. The problem is that if you do a thing a lot, like math teachers do, then pretty soon it is obvious to you. So what I try to do is to remember just how incredibly frustrating it was when I was learning it the first time and usually that’s a pretty good guide.”
After their booming success at Burning Man, P and M decided to bring their skills to the masses. In order to combat the image that physics and math are too dense to understand, they began answering people’s questions on the internet. They set up the site, “Ask a Mathematician,” and soon had questions pouring in.
From the start, they decided to stay anonymous (even in interviews and media coverage). P says that’s because he wanted their answers to be taken and examined at face value rather than accepted as gospel because of their credentials. Or discredited for the same reason.
“By removing the ability to call to authority, you force people to judge what you write based on exactly what it is. So I always try to cite examples and actually derive the relevant math when I put together an article. That way, if anybody has a complaint, it’s not, ‘You didn’t go to Harvard three times.’ It has to be, ‘You did the math wrong.’ That’s where I think the discussion should be.”
P’s current work involves working out the mathematical side of quantum physics, which sounds really complicated, but P describes it fairly simply. What he does is create mathematical tools or equations so that quantum physicists are able to use them. Then these quantum algorithms can be applied to research.
It’s a profession P loves, though he tried to avoid it as a kid. His father was a physicist and so to rebel, he decided to major in creative writing in college. Eventually, like many of us who have realized that we’ve totally turned into our parents, he soon found himself gravitating back towards math and physics. He started taking math classes just for a fun credit (!) and was quickly drawn back in to the physicist life.
That’s not to say that the energy from writing classes has been put to waste. With “Ask a Mathematician,” P gets to put some of that creative writing to good use, blending both of those passions into a fun site that answers questions in a creative, easy to understand way. The site will soon be turned into a book though P is yet to think of a really good pen name. But until then, he’ll continue to be a STEM warrior on the internet, answering the questions that you’ve always wanted to know (so that you can sound just a little smarter at dinner parties).
Since we had P on the phone, we brought him physics questions from the Uproxx writing staff. P kindly answered them for us. Read our questions and his answers below!