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Bringing SIAM News to Life for Nearly Three Decades

By Paul Davis

SIAM News existed before SIAM found Gail Corbett, but she found for SIAM the newsjournal that SINEWS is today, a compelling communicator of mathematics and its applications within and far beyond the boundaries of our society. SINEWS keeps us together as it tells our story all around the globe to business, industry, government, and academia.

I became involved with SINEWS, along with a few other volunteers (Ed Rogers, Jim Frauenthal), before Gail’s time but after it had moved out of Ed Block’s kitchen and into SIAM’s offices in the Architect’s Building. All of us subscribed wholeheartedly to Ed’s vision of telling non-mathematicians of the accomplishments and importance of applied mathematics. None of us could move from that vision to a self-sustaining, much less thriving, publication. 

Gail Corbett’s first issue of SIAM News from March 1987, when she began as associate editor of the membership’s newsjournal.
Gail Corbett accomplished that, bringing SINEWS to life, a slow, arduous, and ultimately brilliant accomplishment. She understands writers, mathematicians, mathematics, and how each entity interacts with the others.

She managed a changing cast of writers, some of them mathematicians, some not.  Some of them wrote about what they did or knew. Some of them learned, then wrote.  Some delivered what they had promised when it was due. Others drifted off like satellites into deep space, eventually falling silent, mission incomplete. But she filled issue after issue with more and better material even as the pace of publication increased.

A more critical skill was her grasp of the social and intellectual networks that drive mathematics, especially the interdisciplinary networks of applied mathematics. No one could work with her for long without being struck by her intuitive understanding of the shapes and connections of important ideas and of the roles of specific individuals in mastering those relationships.

Reading a recent piece1 in the New York Times Magazine by Gareth Cook about the UCLA Fields Medalist Terry Tao brought to mind those insights of Gail’s. Cook wrote:

“Tao told me that his view of mathematics has utterly changed since childhood. . . . It turned out that the work of real mathematicians bears little resemblance to the manipulations and memorization of the math student. . . . The ancient art of mathematics, Tao has discovered, does not reward speed so much as patience, cunning, and . . . the sort of gift for collaboration and improvisation that characterizes the best jazz musicians.”

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that a textile artist and fluent Francophile should understand so well how and what we do, likely better than many of us understand ourselves, certainly with a mastery that has led SIAM News to become so effective and so highly regarded for telling our stories.

Gail, thank you for taking time away from your loom to build SINEWS for us. Enjoy a long and happy retirement. We’ll miss you.

After more than twenty-eight years, Gail Corbett retired as SIAM News editor on July 31, 2015. Karthika Swamy Cohen takes over for Gail as the new managing editor.

1 G. Cook. The singular mind of Terry Tao. New York Times Magazine, July 24, 2015. 

Paul Davis is professor emeritus of mathematical sciences at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

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