Mathematician Steven Strogatz receives national award for science communication

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine have awarded top prize for science communication by a “research scientist–later career” to Steven Strogatz, the Susan and Barton Winokur Distinguished Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and Mathematics in the College of Arts and Sciences. Neil Lewis, Jr., an associate professor of communication in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Weill Cornell Medicine, was also named a winner in the same category.

The Eric and Wendy Schmidt Award for Excellence in Science Communications is given by the National Academies in partnership with Schmidt Futures, and recognizes science journalists, research scientists, and science communicators who have developed creative, original work to communicate issues and advances in science, engineering, and medicine to the public.

Strogatz’s and Lewis’ work was selected for the awards from among 500 entries published or aired in 2023. A total of 24 awards were announced in eight categories, with the top prize winners in each category receiving a prize of $40,000. The winners will be honored during an invitation-only workshop and recognition event on Jan. 11 and 12, 2024, in Washington, D.C. 

The award committee cited three of Strogatz’s works in their decision for the top prize: an essay on “How Infinite Series Reveal the Unity of Mathematics,” and a podcast about “Why Is Inflammation a Dangerous Necessity?”, both with Quanta Magazine; and “Infinite Hotel,” an excerpt from the documentary film “A Trip to Infinity,” which aired on Netflix.

“Strogatz’s skill in making complex topics relatable and engaging is truly commendable, and his contributions serve as a beacon in the realm of making mathematics accessible and fascinating to a wider public,” wrote the award committee. “He reveals, with superb quality, the wonder and depth of math, managing to be both entertaining and thought-provoking for a wide range of audiences.”

From a weekly column on mathematics for the New York Times in 2010 and 2012 to recent books for the general public – The Joy of x and Infinite Powers – Strogatz has long been passionate about sharing science. His current podcast for Quanta Magazine, The Joy of Why, takes listeners into some of the biggest unanswered questions in math and science today.

“This award means the world to me,” says Strogatz. “I love math, but even more than that, I love helping others see what’s so beautiful and fascinating about it.”

Lewis also had three works cited in their decision: a FiveThirtyEight article on “What happens when American children learn about racism?,” a STAT News article on why “Covid-19 is an inverse equity story, not a racial equity success story,” and a Social Science Research Council essay on strategies to improve evidence and relevance in the social sciences.

“Lewis’ work stands out as excellent, illuminating what science has revealed about the entrenchment of racial discrimination in its various manifestations and how to combat it, aiming for rapprochement rather than division,” wrote the awards committee. “His stories not only inform but also catalyze critical conversations and actions, making him a significant contributor in the ongoing pursuit of a more equitable society.”

A regular contributor for FiveThirtyEight and The Atlantic, and co-director of the Cornell Action Research Collaborative, Lewis has long been passionate about sharing scientific findings and their implications for equity in social interventions and policies in society.

“I am grateful for this award, which recognizes the labor that it takes to research and write about the more difficult, and less rosy, aspects of the human experience,” Lewis Jr. said. “Communicating about inequality – and particularly racial inequality – isn't always appreciated, so it means a lot to have this work recognized by the National Academies.”

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 Steven Strogatz wearing headphones