Somewhere along the way, the word “humbled” came in. “I am humbled,” declared the new NYU president at his inauguration last week. It’s a great word, sends all the right signals.

But a little detached, perhaps, from its traditional meaning. As Hillary recalled one of her achievements in this evening’s Clinton-Trump debate –

“I was very proud and very humbled about that.”

[9 October 2016]

Genghis Khan’s descendants

How differently do mathematicians and historians think? It would seem the factor is about a billion.

I went to a lecture today by a history professor. His abstract had raised the question, “How many people alive today are descendants of Genghis Khan?” The answer he gave in the lecture was, around 16 million.

That was the word he used, simply “descendants”. However, after a question it emerged that he actually meant not just descendants but descendants in a direct male line, male to male to male to male (hence all with the same Y chromosome).

This is a sensational, spectacular, supernova kind of a difference. Suppose Genghis Khan lived 30 generations ago. In principle each of us has up to 2^30 ≈ 1 billion ancestors back then. (The actual number will be less because of overlaps and limited population size.) If one of your ancestors was Genghis Khan or William the Conqueror or Attila the Hun, that’s not very remarkable. But if your father’s father’s father’s … father was Genghis or William or Attila, that’s astonishing.

To this historian, the distinction was evidently a footnote.

[27 September 2016]

The immaculate conception

So far as I am aware, there is no historical evidence about Jesus Christ’s mother. I believe we just invented her. Thus one of Mary’s most unusual properties is indeed quite true: she was immaculately conceived.

[21 September 2016]

Two weeks after the Brexit referendum

Here in Oxford’s spectacular mathematics building, we had our weekly meeting of the Chebfun team yesterday. Looking around the table, I realized that the people here working with me were from Italy, France, Germany, the USA, Pakistan, Iran, Japan, and China — and that I was the only one in the room with the right to remain permanently in the UK.

Seven-and-a-half of our nine salaries are paid by sources outside the UK.

More or less accidentally, the British people seem to have voted to bring all this to an end.

[7 July 2016]

We like sheep

The Bible has much to say about sheep, which are cared for by man as man is cared for by God. Walking the South Downs Way past hundreds of them yesterday, I was wondering about what sheep make of this relationship. It’s hard to put myself in the mind of a ewe, but perhaps an approximation goes like this. She probably knows pretty well that people run the show. She probably has a sense that the man who takes care of her and her lambs is on their side. A caregiver.

Being a sheep, she probably doesn’t reflect much on the question of “why?”  Why does that man take care of us? What’s in it for him? Perhaps she dimly supposes that it’s because he likes us.

It doesn’t occur to her that his actual plan is to eat us.

[4 July 2016]

Jeremy Corbyn and the number 3/4

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, was overwhelmingly defeated this week in a no-confidence vote: 40 votes for him, 172 against. That’s 81.1% against.

The press has been describing this fraction sometimes as “three-quarters”.  I heard that expression on Radio 4 when the vote was first announced, and here it is again in yesterday’s Economist: “Jeremy Corbyn has been rejected by three-quarters of his MPs”. In fact, 81.1% is between four-fifths and five-sixths.

The BBC and the Economist are not sloppy. We can assume their choice of words was intentional. I guess in their editorial judgment, “three-quarters” sounds like English and “four-fifths” sounds like statistics.

[1 July 2016]

Hollywood’s portrayal of numerical computation

Dear NA friends,

I don’t normally sink so low as to send you an image from a movie, but this is irresistible. Kate and I just saw The Martian, in which Matt Damon is stuck on Mars and likely to die. But then the very cool young JPL astrophysicist genius Rich Purnell has the idea of slingshotting a spacecraft around Earth and back to Mars at great speed. Will it work? Cool young Purnell goes to the computer to run the math. He presses Enter, waits a tense moment, and then in one of the film’s big dramatic moments, gets this response on the screen,


Isn’t this delicious? It’s not every day that Hollywood shows the world the excitement of numerical computation.

[16 May 2016]