By: Daniela Olariu, RSJ ’17
Siobhan Roberts (RSJ ‘97) has recently joined the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin as a Journalist in Residence.
At the MPIWG, she is working on a book about the Swiss-American-Canadian mathematical logician Verena Huber-Dyson and exploring narrative themes such as gender and sexual politics, and notions of evidence, proof, and objectivity.
But before this, her typical day begins with “as much procrastination as possible,” like scrubbing behind her friend’s stove.
“I don’t think he’s noticed yet, and he probably never will,” she says. “But it was helpful in booting up my brain and finally getting down to doing what in German is referred to as “sitzfleisch”—literally translated to “sitting meat” or “sitting flesh,” it’s the notion of sitting one’s ass in the chair and remaining there for a long, long time in order to get work done.
Prior to her graduate studies at Ryerson, she did her undergrad in History at Queen’s. She chose journalism because “it’s the perfect excuse to ring up any stranger out of the blue and shamelessly ask a lot of questions.”
She also thinks journalism, math and science are remarkably similar.
“They are all investigative and involve following one’s curiosity, gathering myriad pieces of information, embracing stuckedness, getting to the “Aha!” moment, and then finally fitting together the overall puzzle that forms a compelling story and offers some variation on truth.”
The Canadian author and science journalist is a contributor at The New Yorker’s science and tech blog “Elements,” and Quanta. Over the years she’s written for The New York Times, The Guardian, Smithsonian, The Walrus, and The Globe and Mail, among other publications.
She is the author of King of Infinite Space: Donald Coxeter, The Man Who Saved Geometry, which won the Mathematical Association of America’s 2009 Euler Prize for expanding the public’s view of mathematics and Wind Wizard: Alan G. Davenport and the Art of Wind Engineering which won the CSCE W. Gordon Plewes History Award.
In 2017, she won the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics Communications Award for her engaging biographies of eminent mathematicians and articles about mathematics.
Her most recent book, Genius at Play, The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway, was a sequel of sorts to her first book.
One of her biggest accomplishments is finishing her first book under a decade and the New York City marathon in under four hours.
“My editor had warned me that a book, too, is a marathon.”
Roberts claims the library at MPIWG is tremendous, the intelectual company is formidable and the lectures and seminars are fascinating.
“The day I arrived, there was a lecture on “The Imaginary Museum of Mathematical Objects,” she says. “Followed that weekend by an exploratory two-day workshop titled, “The Simplicity Seminar,” which aimed “to map the constellation of meanings of simplicity” and “investigate in what historical contexts it is or is not a value, why, and with what consequences” and “examine how simplicity interacts (or is in tension) with other values, such as exactitude or generality.” Simplicity is at once ubiquitous, elusive, and complex. I’m in heaven!”