In March 2014, mathematics and science journalist Erica Klarreich got a rare chance to report exclusively on a top math story. Thomas Lin, the managing editor of Quanta Magazine, had convinced the International Mathematical Union to give him advance notice of the winners of the Fields Medals, which are awarded every four years and are often described as mathematics’ Nobel Prize. (Quanta, which is published by but editorially independent from the Simons Foundation, is one of the few outlets with a commitment to running in-depth articles about math.) Lin brought Klarreich on board to help write several detailed profiles of the winners, including one of Stanford University professor Maryam Mirzakhani.
Klarreich’s August 2014 Quanta article “A Tenacious Explorer of Abstract Surfaces” describes Mirzakhani’s career arc, from her childhood in Tehran to her groundbreaking work on hyperbolic surfaces and billiard dynamics. It casts the mathematician as a fearless and accomplished scholar and is peppered with personal details, such as the doodles Mirzakhani draws when thinking about mathematics.
Here, Klarreich tells Tiên Nguyễn the story behind the story, including the decision to bury the information that Mirzakhani is the first woman to win a Fields Medal. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
What was your editor’s role in helping report this story?
He met with Mirzakhani, talked with her and took photos. He gave me some notes from his conversation. I interviewed her separately and interviewed the other people who are quoted in the article.
Had you met Mirzakhani before? Were you familiar with her work?
I had not met her before. I have a PhD in mathematics and it was just a kind of a lucky coincidence that my area of research is kind of close to hers. I’ve gotten rusty, but I still had a certain amount of background that was certainly very helpful when it came to trying to understand the mathematics.
How many times did you meet with her?
Once. Various people had told me that she was a fairly private person, and I wasn’t sure that she’d want to talk to me. I sent her an email that she didn’t respond to for a while. Eventually she did reply and agreed to meet with me. We sat and talked for about two hours.
One thing that helped in terms of managing to get everything I needed in only two hours was that I had already interviewed almost everyone else that I ended up quoting in the story. I was focusing much more on the things that surrounded the mathematics, like her approach to research and her life story.
How did you find the other seven sources in the story?
I talked with Curt McMullen, who was [Mirzakhani’s] doctoral advisor, who spent a lot of time on the phone with me [and] who gave me a lot of great explanations of her work and recommended various other people for me to talk to.
Was there pressure to keep the winners’ names from being released prematurely?
Yes, we were being very careful as we did the interviews not to say anything about the Fields Medal. In most cases, I just said I was writing a profile of this mathematician.
How did you find the balance between talking about Mirzakhani’s work and her as a person?
In a way, the story of her as a person and the story of her mathematics were very intertwined, because the kind of mathematics that she does and her approach to mathematics is very much a part of her personality and who she is. The story of how she developed into this very determined, persistent and ambitious—but at the same time humble—[person] was very much connected to the kinds of mathematical questions that she is drawn to. That helped a lot with the narrative because it wasn’t two totally disconnected stories that I had to tell.
Did you read a lot of primary literature while you were researching the piece?
No, I didn’t really read any of her primary literature, though I certainly tracked down her relevant papers because we put in hyperlinks.
Most science papers have a discussion section at the end, and it gives that sort of big overview of what was done in the paper and what its significance was. But mathematicians don’t actually have a section like that—there will be an introduction that gives some background on the problem, then they just present the proof, and pretty much the last line of the proof is the last line of the article. So there’s a lot less in a typical math paper for a journalist to grab onto and make sense of than there is in some other science journal articles.
How did you approach breaking down these highly complex topics into something more understandable?
That’s always a challenge in my writing because mathematics often doesn’t translate into language. It’s often very visual or very numerical—it doesn’t always have an inherent verbal quality to it. In one of the other articles that I wrote in the series, about Manjul Bhargava, he talked about how he would often delay writing down his results after he got some mathematical idea, sometimes because there wasn’t really any language yet for expressing the ideas that he had. That’s a common difficulty in writing about math.
In this case, it really did help that I had background in this area–that gave me a level of familiarity with material that I don’t always have. Most of what I wrote really came from my own digesting of the material and then re-formulating it in my own words. But at the same time, I benefitted from a bunch of interviews with some people who are very good at explaining things.
How do you make sure not to overwhelm the reader with technical details?
Sometimes [my editor or I] will pop things out into a sidebar. For example, in the Mirzakhani piece there’s a sidebar that goes into more detail about the billiard tables and the translation surfaces and how they relate to each other and the idea of creating these looking-glass worlds where the billiard ball is continuing to roll straight. That was in the original text of the full article when I turned in my draft. [Pulling it into a sidebar] can be a very effective way of giving people a little more mathematical meat without slowing down the narrative too much.
Did you come up with the graphic that accompanies the sidebar?
Yes, that was something I came up with and I felt very proud of myself for making it because I’m not really a graphic person. I couldn’t find anything exactly like what I had in mind. Honestly, I just sat down with some colored pens and a protractor and cut and pasted and copied and made the picture. And then at the Simons Foundation they cleaned it up and made it look a little more official.
Do you have advice for people writing about math?
I don’t know that I have any tricks that I can recommend. I do have a goal, which is to take the readers on a little mathematical journey of their own. I want them to have some little piece of math that they think through and think “Aha! I understand that.” Just a little bit of a taste of what it feels like to do math, to think about math, and to have that little feeling of pleasure when you get something.
Let’s go into detail about your writing process. How do you get started?
After I’ve done all my interviews I read through all my notes and I make myself a sort of guide. It’s almost like an index of concepts and quotes, although sometimes I’ll have it organized on different pages. For this article, I probably had one page about her life history and it might have things like going to high school, and then I’d write down all the pages where there was something relevant to her high school years.
The strange thing about this process is I find that when I’m writing the article I don’t refer to the index that much. Somehow creating the index is more important as a process than as a resource for when I’m writing the article. I usually find that by the time I finish my index, I know what my lede is going to be and I pretty much know how I’m going to tell the story. And then I really sit down and start writing.
What does your self-editing process look like?
I write the first chunk on the first day, and then on the second day I’ll read over my first chunk and probably do a light edit and then I go on. The process of reading what I’ve written and editing it a little sort of primes me to start writing the next part, which helps because sometimes it can be hard to just dive into writing.
It has an additional benefit because it means that the beginning parts of the article get polished every day that I’m writing, because every day I go back to the beginning and re-read. By the time I turn in my draft, I’ve really looked at the intro a lot of times. And that’s good because the opening of the article is very important.
Other outlets that covered this story said upfront that Mirzakhani was the first woman Fields Medalist. Did you deliberately decide to leave that until the end?
Yes, putting it at the end actually was a very conscious decision on my part. The fact that she’s the first woman to win the Fields Medal is significant, and it is a big story, but at the same time it wasn’t really the story that I wanted to tell. I wanted to tell the story of who she was and not the story of “Oh, first woman wins Fields Medal.”
The Quanta site does say very prominently that she is the first woman Fields Medalist. I knew the editor was going to do that, and I basically agreed with that choice. And knowing that that information was available to the readers in a fairly prominent location gave me the freedom to kind of ignore it for a large part of the article and really just focus on telling her story.
Tiên Nguyễn is a TON fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. She is an organic chemist and communications specialist for the Princeton University chemistry department. She aims to make chemistry more accessible to the public through her writing, outreach and educational videos. Her writing interests also include drug discovery, physics and gender equality. Follow Tiên on Twitter @mustlovescience.