The New And The Next
5:15 pm
Sat April 12, 2014

Making Math And Microscopes More Accessible

Originally published on Sat April 12, 2014 6:44 pm

The online magazine Ozy covers people, places and trends on the horizon. Co-founder Carlos Watson joins All Things Considered regularly to tell us about the site's latest discoveries.

This week, Watson tells guest host Tess Vigeland about Cedric Villani, a successful mathematician with a stylish flair that's given him the moniker "The Lady Gaga of Mathematics." Though he's made big discoveries and earned a prestigious Fields Medal, he's on a mission to make math more accessible.

They also discuss a scientist who is developing light-weight, 50-cent microscopes with hopes to open the door for better testing and science education in developing countries.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TESS VIGELAND, HOST:

It's time for the New and the Next.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VIGELAND: Carlos Watson is the co-founder of the online magazine Ozy, and each week he joins us to talk about what is new and what is next. Welcome back, Carlos.

CARLOS WATSON: Tess, good to be with you.

VIGELAND: So let's start with my least favorite subject on Earth, shall we, math?

WATSON: Don't say that, Tess, don't say that.

VIGELAND: Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Well, I think I'm not alone in my feelings here, but you found a French mathematician who is trying to spice things up.

WATSON: He is. His name is Cedric Villani, but he's popularly referred to as Math's Lady Gaga. So he dresses like a 19th century aristocrat - wild, colorful, plume-y shirts and other sorts of things, but he's an incredible mathematician.

In fact, he won the highest prize in math, called the Fields Medal, which some people say is like the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for math. But gave it all up a couple years ago and said, I want to spend my life popularizing math with the Tesses and the Carloses of this world.

VIGELAND: Fair enough. I do have to ask with the Lady Gaga comparison, can we safely assume that he knows the old rule that before you walk out of the house, you do some subtraction and take one thing off?

WATSON: You know what? He's not about subtraction. He's all about addition. I love your pun. So as he gets ready to come out with a book next year called "The Living Theorem," he's going to be doing a lot more over here in the States.

VIGELAND: So he wins this big prize, but he decides he wants to make the world love math. Where did that transition come? Why did he decide that he wanted to become essentially a math ambassador?

WATSON: Part of it had to do with his family upbringing. So he grew up in a small town in France, son of philosophers and composers and artists. So his own turn to math wasn't immediately predictable, and he found that as he tried to discuss his work with family and friends, they often had an immediate wall up, not dissimilar, Tess, from your feeling when the topic first came up.

So he thought there was more he could, and whether he did that through speeches, through new workbooks, he often pairs up, Tess, with a comic. He thought he had the ability to kind of really bring it alive in a very exciting way.

VIGELAND: So if only I had had a comic book in fourth grade I could be a mathematician.

(LAUGHTER)

WATSON: Tess, there's still time. You could always start late.

VIGELAND: Fair enough. I'll start studying this weekend. OK. So we've done math. We might as well bring in some science here. If you've ever had a fascination with microscopes, you've got a guy to see.

WATSON: So there's a young Stanford professor named Manu Prakash, 37 years old, realized the number of infectious diseases, particularly in developing parts of the world, like Malaria where 3.5 billion people are at risk of it. In terms of determining that they have it, the big gating item is often access to a really good microscope.

That a really good microscope often costs $200, it's bulky, it doesn't work in remote villages, and so he came up with a 50 cent microscope, which he calls the foldoscope.

VIGELAND: Foldoscope. And just how big are these things? How do they work?

WATSON: It looks like a colored piece of cardboard that ultimately folds into something as thin as kind of a big bookmark. And he's tested it in a variety of different countries and continents, and he even tested it's durability by literally stomping on it and throwing it out of a third story window.

The other piece is in making science education more interesting, because now for 50 cents, they've got a powerful tool that they can explore with, where as in the past, at 200 bucks a piece, who's going to get access to that in a relatively low income country?

VIGELAND: Fascinating. Carlos Watson is the co-founder of the online magazine Ozy. And Carlos, I think we've done a pretty good job of getting people hopped up about science and math. So we'll get the books out right away this weekend.

WATSON: Hey, the phrase of the day is STEM education - Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

VIGELAND: All right. Thanks so much, Carlos.

WATSON: Good to be with you, Tess.

VIGELAND: And you can explore all of the stories we talk about at npr.org/newandnext.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.