Walking through a minefield in clown shoes: Or, how I wrote about “P vs NP” and lived to tell about it

19Aug10

I’ve known about the “P versus NP problem” in computer science for a few years. It sits right at the intersection (which I love) of weird math, technology, and philosophy. So when a new “proof” of the conjecture bubbled up into the news, I leapt at the opportunity to write a story about it for Technology Review. The question I was curious to answer to was: What does “P vs NP” mean for the rest of us? If it were proven one way or another — a very unlikely prospect — how would it affect the daily business of computing, if at all?

I assumed that this was an “easy” angle to take. Boy was I wrong. They don’t call it “complexity theory” for nothing, after all. But while the technical details could choke a Vulcan, the distinctions between the various “species” of computational problems (e.g., “P,” “NP,” “NP-complete,” etc.) can seem quite intuitive at first. That’s what’s so intriguing about P-vs-NP: gobbledygook like this can actually map to very layman-friendly concepts, like playing Sudoku or arranging the seating assignments for a wedding reception.

And there’s the danger, of course. I’m used to trusting my own nose for an intuitive analogy. But when I finished my draft — and even after one of my sources vetted it for accuracy — my science-writer “Spidey sense” was still subtly tingling. Thank god Scott Aaronson was willing to double-check it, because he uncovered half a dozen subtly-wrong-but-still-just-plain-wrong characterizations of basic concepts. I corrected them, and then asked him to triple-check. He found a couple more errors. Everything worked out and my editor was pleased in the end, but it was a very valuable reminder: when feeling extra-curious about something, be extra-careful. (Captain Obvious? Yup. But sometimes that’s the kind of stuff I most easily forget.)

The bright side is that this reporting experience only makes me more eager to write about “P versus NP.” Maybe I’m a science-writing version of an adrenaline junkie: I feel like I barely made it out of this topic alive, but it’s just so damn interesting, and there’s so much more “dangerous territory” to explore and bring back the goods from, that I can’t wait to go back.

[Postscript: I forgot to mention the huge importance of having a good editor on this story, or any one like it. Instead of fantasizing about murdering me, Will Knight at Tech Review whipped my sorry excuse for a news lede into shape, worked late on several drafts, and actually thanked me in the end. A real mensch.]



5 Responses to “Walking through a minefield in clown shoes: Or, how I wrote about “P vs NP” and lived to tell about it”

  1. You are definitely the science writing version of an adrenaline junkie. I have never attempted to write about straight math – it’s the one area I just won’t touch. This post makes explicit my intuitive aversion to it. TR is lucky to have a daredevil in their rolodex now.🙂

    • 2 Me

      Well, there’s plenty of “hard” stuff that I wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole either… climate change, for example!

  2. 3 The Schwazz

    “when feeling extra-curious about something, be extra-careful” + “I can’t wait to go back” = Attaboy, sir. I take comfort knowing you’re out there, not takin’ ‘er easy for all us sinners.

    You deserve a variety pack:

    • 4 Me

      I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic, but I’ll take it.🙂

  3. 5 Mary Carmichael

    This is exactly how I feel about covering genomics and complex traits. I can’t talk about how much I love it without sounding like a masochist.



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