Marianna Freiberger

Country of birth: 
Great Britain
Country of studies: 
Great Britain
Country of residence: 
Great Britain

We would like to introduce Marianne Freiberger,  who is co-editor of the magazine Plus and together with Rachel Thomas and Marc West looks after the day-to-day running of Plus, writing articles and news items, doing interviews, and copy-editing feature articles sent in by our wonderful and generous contributors. Before joining Plus, Marianne did a PhD and then a three year postdoc, both in complex dynamics and both at Queen Mary, University of London.

EWM has asked Marianne tell us a bit more about the Plus magazine and herself, and here is her answer:

I’m one of the two editors of Plus online magazine.

Plus is a completely free magazine about mathematics aimed at the general public. We publish four times a year and each issue contains a range of feature articles written by mathematicians and scientists on any aspect of maths and its applications, as well as an interview with a working mathematician. In between issues we publish regular news items and podcasts.

All articles are accessible for anyone with an A level knowledge of maths.

We cover anything from pure maths and theoretical physics to maths in the arts and social sciences, or any other area where maths might crop up.

There are quite a few famous names in our list of authors and interviewees, including Stephen Hawking, Roger Penrose, John Conway, Caroline Series and Cheryl Praeger.

Plus has been going for ten years now. It is part of the Millennium Mathematics Project , a non-profit-making educational initiative based at the University of Cambridge – a great place to be with access to lots of interesting mathematicians! Plus initially started as a resource for school teachers, but soon widened its remit. Today our audience (Plus attracts around 250,000 site visits a month) includes people from all backgrounds and ages and with all kinds of reasons for their interest. Some of our articles require a pen and paper and lots of careful thought, while others can be read in a leisurely ten minutes in front of the computer or in the bath. Some articles require a good background in maths, while others are so simple that they reel in thousands of people who never in their life thought that they’d find maths even remotely interesting – this does happen, and it’s fun when it does!

My own involvement in Plus began in early 2005. I was coming to the end of a postdoc at Queen Mary, University of London, where I had been working with Shaun Bullett on holomorphic dynamics. I’d put in a few unsuccessful applications for further postdocs and I was getting grumpy about the prospect of spending a few more years here and there, in places I didn’t really want to be in. I’d toyed with the idea of becoming a science writer, but what I had read about it didn’t sound too encouraging either.

Especially since I hadn’t got a clue about “science”, having always been a pure mathematician who could just about screw in a light bulb. I came across the job ad for the position of Plus assistant editor by chance, applied, and got it. Initially it was only to cover my colleague’s maternity leave, but luckily for me, the then editor left for The Economist, and I got the job for longer (though nothing’s permanent in this game). I was extremely lucky, because I really enjoy it!

My job now involves quite a wide range of things. There’s only two of us running Plus, so it’s all in our hands. Firstly, there’s the work of an actual editor: finding authors, liaising with them and editing their work, which can be quite hard given the definition-theorem-proof style of many mathematicians. What I like most, though, is the fact that I get to do lots of writing myself about any subject that interests me. I talk to the mathematicians, do a bit of research, try to get my head around things, and then try to turn them into something accessible and, if I’m lucky, interesting for non-mathematicians. Then there’s the day-to-day running of Plus, including running the news desk, recording podcasts (lots of fun too), organising our writing competition, doing publicity work, etc, etc.

My interest in maths popularisation simply comes from the fact that I love the ideas and think that everyone should know about them. It’s almost a cliche, but it’s true: maths is poorly understood and misunderstood by “the public”. Since you’re probably all mathematicians I (for a change) don’t have to go on about why this is a bit of a cultural scandal.

What I would like to say, though, is that researchers are hugely important in maths popularisation. Turning the problem around is not just a matter for school teachers or that vast and non-descript thing called the media.

Few subjects are as impenetrable to non-experts as mathematics – half of the time we don’t even understand each other’s work! It takes experts to help translate the jumble of symbols and strange words into something that can be understood by the rest of the world. If academics don’t help, then everyone else loses out.

In a sense my work now is the opposite of research: I get to learn about an incredibly broad range of maths, but none of my learning goes very deep.

Just enough to write an article for someone who knows even less. But that suits me. I’ve always been fascinated by the ideas, but bored by the details, and I’ve never been great at coming up with amazing ideas of my own. Having said that, I do miss the research and the time it grants to get to the bottom of things.

Women are still underrepresented in maths and this is something I also notice in my work at Plus: the majority of our authors and interviewees are male. We are read by younger people and I worry that the apparent male dominance discourages some of them. So – if you like the idea of Plus and would like to share some of your maths with the wider world, then please get in touch!