Here’s the proof that math is hot these days

Math – the m in STEM – is probably the least glamorous of all the STEM fields. Go ahead – just try to name one celebrity mathematician (Russell Crowe as Princeton math legend John Nash in A Beautiful Mind doesn’t count).

But all that could be changing.

The big news, of course, is that the Fields Medal – generally considered to be the Nobel Prize of mathematics – was recently awarded for the first time in its nearly 80-year history to a woman. The 37-year-old Iranian-born Maryam Mirzakhani of Stanford could do for mathematics what astronaut Sally Ride did for space travel: give young girls a role model for someone they’d like to be when they grow up. “This is a great honor. I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians, ” Mirzakhani noted in a Stanford University news release. “I am sure there will be many more women winning this kind of award in coming years.” 

And that’s huge. After all, part of the narrative about the STEM profession is that women simply lack the types of role models and mentors to help them stay in the field. Having someone like Mirzakhani win the Fields Medal could draw attention to other top female mathematicians in the field and give a new boost to all the types of grassroots initiatives that have sprung up recently to get more young kids — especially kids from underrepresented backgrounds — interested in math.

And there’s another reason why mathematics suddenly seems hotter than ever — and that has to do with the rising salaries and career prospects of math graduates. A recent career survey from CareerCast named mathematician as the “most desirable job in the world.” The reason, quite simply, is that all the hot areas of the technology industry – from big data to computer search algorithms – draw intensely on the field of mathematics. According to CareerCast, mathematicians now can expect a median income of over $100,000. Jobs for mathematicians are expected to grow at a rate of 23 percent by 2022.

Current hiring trends — mostly anecdotal at this point — seem to bear out these numbers. The Wall Street Journal, for example, recently profiled the “high priests of algorithms” – all the young researchers in fields such as mathematics that are being sought after by Silicon Valley firms for their ability to master the emerging field of Big Data. Whereas once mathematicians might have been scooped up by Wall Street brokerage firms for their ability to help create sophisticated portfolio hedging techniques, they are now being scooped by Silicon Valley firms eager to create sophisticated models for predicting consumer behaviors.

Which brings us back to the talented Ms. Mirzakhani. While the subject of her research work in the math field is largely inscrutable – “the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces” – in layman’s terms, mathematical insights from this theoretical work could be used in fields ranging from cryptography to engineering. Another winner of the Fields Medal this year, Martin Hairer, is doing work in mathematics that some say could lead to new models for climate science. Math is no longer a standalone field, full of tormented geniuses solving Fermat’s Last Theorem or the Poincaré conjecture. Now mathematics is an integral part of fields such as biology, chemistry and computer science.

Suddenly, like the paranoid mathematician in Darren Aronofsky’s 1998 film “Pi” – it’s possible to see signs of America’s growing math obsession all around us. Kids are watching math videos online. National Pi Day, once the preserve of math nerds everywhere, now comes with its own Google Doodle. Kids are signing up for summer math camps — and actually enjoying them. TED Talks on arcane mathematical topics such as “fractals” can pick up close to 1 million views on the Internet.

The more that math becomes part of the popular culture, the better. It means that people will take a greater interest in how math is an important driving force behind many of the future developments in our digital culture — from how our mobile phones work to the latest developments in artificial intelligence — that we tend to take for granted. And that could lead to a new generation of kids who actually enjoy doing math and seeing the immediate application of their work in everyday life.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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Matt McFarland · September 2, 2014