Oliver Roeder in FiveThirtyEight:
Ten years ago, Jeffrey Adams, a mathematician at the University of Maryland, made an appearance in The New York Times that prompted a series of angry emails. His correspondents all wanted to know one thing: “Who the hell do you think you are?”
Who Adams is is the leader of a cutting-edge mathematical research project called the Atlas of Lie Groups and Representations. Lie groups are named after Norwegian mathematician Sophus Lie (rhymes with “free,” not “fry”), who studied these crucial mathematical objects. Lie groups are used to map the inner machinery of multidimensional symmetrical objects, and they’re important because symmetry underpins far-flung mathematical concepts, from a third-grade number line to many-dimensional string theory. The Atlas project is a bona fide atlas of these objects, an exhaustive compendium of Lie group information, including tables of data about what they “look” like and what makes them tick. You’d think that cracking the code on these fundamental mathematical ideas would be a big deal. It is, but Adams would rather not dwell on it.
The success of the atlas project poses a tough math problem of a different kind: What should math’s relationship be with the broader, non-expert public? On the one hand, mathematicians in particular and scientists in general relish publicity. It allows them to trumpet good work, lobby for funding and inspire the next generation. On the other, in an ultra-specialized field such as math, publicity can twist finely constructed theorems, proofs and calculations beyond recognition.