During my twenty-plus years as a freelance writer, I have written more than 100 (and probably closer to 200) articles about various fields of science. The magazines I have published in include Science, American Scientist, New Scientist, Discover, Scientific American, Science News, Smithsonian, and Nautilus. My wife likes to joke, “Every magazine with ‘science’ in the title!”
In the past I have maintained a fairly lengthy list of publications at this website, but in the belief that most visitors are really only interested in a representative sample, I’m paring the list down to just a few favorites. Also, you might want to check out Research and Personal, where I link to some articles I didn’t get paid for, but wrote out of personal passion.
A Tisket, A Tasket, An Apollonian Gasket
In the fall of 2008, I was journalist in residence at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley. One afternoon, when I was sitting in my office and wasting time, I happened to notice my computer’s screen saver displaying a beautiful pattern of circles. “What IS that?” I wondered. Later, at the Joint Mathematics Meetings in 2009, I saw a poster showing practically the same pattern. From there I learned that it was a mathematical object called an Apollonian gasket, and that it is full of deep and beautiful mysteries involving number theory and group theory. A year later I was asked to write a guest column for American Scientist, and I immediately knew what I wanted to write about! To read the article you need to sign up for a free account with JSTOR, but don’t let that stop you.
The Poincaré Conjecture — Proved
The Poincaré Conjecture was THE mathematics story of the Millennial Decade. Gregory Perelman, a reclusive Russian mathematician, claimed to have a proof of one of the most famous unsolved problems in mathematics. Mathematicians weren’t sure; his papers were more like a scaffolding than a finished building. Over the next three years, three separate groups of mathematicians independently confirmed the proof. Perelman was to be awarded the Fields Medal, the highest honor in mathematics — but he stood up the mathematical community, and the King of Spain, by declining to show up for the award. I wrote three or four articles for Science at various times during this drama, culminating with this cover article when the editors of Science named Perelman’s work as their Breakthrough of the Year for 2006.
Games and Recreations
Why This Week’s Man-Versus-Machine Go Match Doesn’t Matter (and What Does)
In early 2016 I was swept up in the excitement surrounding AlphaGo, a program developed at Google’s DeepMind subsidiary to play the ancient game of go. At the time of this article, AlphaGo was getting ready to challenge Lee Sedol, a former world #1. For me, it was all hauntingly familiar — I had seen the same angst among chess players, the same mistaken belief that “the machines are taking over,” when computers first defeated the human world chess champion. Yet in the ensuing years, computers have had a mostly positive and transformative effect on human chess. Let’s hope that the same will be true for go. PS: AlphaGo won the match, 4-1. It subsequently won 60 consecutive games against top human players, including the world champion Ke Jie, and then retired. Sedol will go down in history as the last human to win a game against the world’s best computer go program.
Physics and Chemistry
Goldberg Variations: New Shapes for Molecular Cages
It’s hard to know how to classify this article: Is it chemistry or is it mathematics? That’s one reason I like it. Two neuroscientists at UCLA answered a question that mathematicians never even thought to ask: Is there a way to build a soccer ball-style cage (or polyhedron), only with more than 60 faces? The requirements were that the faces have to be flat, the edges must have the same length, and the cage must have an overall 60-fold symmetry. Even though most of the article is behind a paywall, you can see the answer in the beautiful picture at the top of the article: Yes! They found examples with up to 980 faces (the one in the picture has only 252).
Geology and Earth Science
Atmospheric Rivers: When the Sky Falls
In California, where I live, we get inundated two or three times a year (sometimes more) by storm systems that siphon moisture directly from the tropics (read: Hawaii) and stretch halfway across the Pacific. “Atmospheric rivers” are also responsible for the great majority of the largest rain events and floods in England. Meteorologists had no idea these rivers existed until they developed satellites that could see through the cloud tops to measure how much moisture was present in the full 3-dimensional volume of a storm system. This article is mostly behind a paywall, but you can watch a video from NOAA with incredibly cool satellite pictures and incredibly bad narration. (I disclaim any responsibility for their awful script-writing!)
Fueling Innovation and Discovery: The Mathematical Sciences in the 21st Century
I’ll let you in on two secrets. Secret number 1: For freelance writers, a better source of income than writing for magazines is “work for hire” — writing for organizations that need to get a message out. Work for hire doesn’t have quite the same cachet as true journalism, but I’m quite proud of the work I did for this brochure, written for the National Academy of Sciences. It highlights 14 real-world applications of mathematics, ranging from cartoon animation to new methods of imaging the brain. Secret number 2: I wrote this baby, even though my name isn’t on the cover. (They do mention my name in the acknowledgments, page iv.) The PDF can be downloaded for free.