Steven Strogatz: The Joy Of 'X' Hear the Cornell University Professor of Applied Mathematics talk about the importance of learning math, as well as his new book, The Joy of X. Plus, the math whiz takes on a quiz inspired by the game "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon."

Steven Strogatz: The Joy Of 'X'

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Steven Strogatz: The Joy Of 'X'

Steven Strogatz: The Joy Of 'X'

Steven Strogatz: The Joy Of 'X'

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"I started making up questions for myself that I didn't know the answer to, just for the fun of getting back into that euphoric feeling of being puzzled and wanting to solve it." — Steven Strogatz, on how his habits changed after solving a challenging word problem in grade school Greg Kessler/World Science Festival hide caption

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Greg Kessler/World Science Festival

"I started making up questions for myself that I didn't know the answer to, just for the fun of getting back into that euphoric feeling of being puzzled and wanting to solve it." — Steven Strogatz, on how his habits changed after solving a challenging word problem in grade school

Greg Kessler/World Science Festival

Steven Strogatz knows that for some people, the subject of math brings back dreaded grade school memories of challenging word problems and formulas. As Professor of Applied Mathematics at Cornell University, Strogatz strives to apply mathematics to the curiosities of everyday life. He's explained head-scratching phenomena as a frequent guest on WNYC's Radiolab, like why a Slinky seems to defy the laws of gravity. And in his "The Elements of Math" series for The New York Times' Opinionator blog, he applied group theory to explain the optimal system to flip a mattress. The series sparked the creation of his latest book, The Joy of X: A Guided Tour of Math, From One to Infinity.

More From This Episode

When Strogatz sat down with host Ophira Eisenberg at The World Science Festival, he challenged the assumption that in a world of computers and calculators, we don't need to know math. "But then the question to me is like, 'Why do I need to watch Michael Jordan play basketball?'" Strogatz said. "Or, 'Why do I need to listen to music?' You don't really need to, but your life will be richer and happier if you do."

In an Ask Me Another Challenge, we found a way to quiz Strogatz on social networks, based on the "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" game. Math enthusiasts have their own version of the game featuring prolific mathematician Paul Erdős, who published more than 1,500 research papers. Strogatz had to identify people who have Erdős-Bacon numbers – that is, people who can be linked to Bacon through acting roles as well as to Erdős through academic paper authorship. (Fun fact: Strogatz has an Erdős-Bacon number of 4, thanks to his appearance in a documentary about social networks that featured – who else? — Kevin Bacon.)

In the video below, Strogatz tells a story on WNYC's Radiolab about how an experiment with pendulums in grade school taught him the meaning of the Law of Nature.