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]

Sitting out the Trump election

In this awful Trump election year, Republicans are announcing that they won’t vote for him; and of course, most of them add, they couldn’t possibly vote for Hillary either. The latest is Miami mayor Tomás Regalado. Today the New York Times reports that Regalado says he’s going to sit this one out.

The idea of sitting out an election gives another illustration of the strange disconnect between the mathematics and the psychology of voting. Mathematically, for a Republican to not vote for anybody has exactly the same effect as voting for Hillary, except with half the magnitude. Who would want their vote to be cut in half? But the human truth of voting has little to do with the mathematics. We all construct personal narratives of how we will or won’t vote, and out of millions of narratives, somehow or other, a president is elected.

[31 May 2016]

Dastardly dimorphisms

Women’s brains are 10% smaller than men’s, yet the sexes are equally intelligent. It might not have turned out like this.  It’s easy to imagine a world in which natural selection had made men brighter than women. The image is an awful one, a dystopia in which the relationship between the sexes would surely have been that of master and slave.  Thank goodness it didn’t turn out like that.

But actually, it did turn out like that: not with brains, but with brawn. We’re so used to men being bigger and stronger that we don’t regard this disparity with horror. Yet most men can dominate most women physically, and I believe this is the main reason why in most societies throughout history, the men have been in control. Why do men dominate women? Because they can.

In recent generations, thanks to the cognitive demands of advancing civilization, we are beginning to rise above the physical differences and approach equality. It might not have turned out like this. If the dimorphism had been in brains rather than brawn, the advance of civilization might have increased the inequality between the sexes rather than diminishing it.

[22 April 2011]

Las Meninas and me

In Madrid this week, I spent a lot of time looking at Las Meninas.  What a friend it became!

A salient feature of art and literature, and a recurring theme in these notes, is the power of ambiguity.  The experience of a great work may be due half to the artist, who brings so much to the canvas, and half to the viewer, in whose eye and mind the image resonates.  Las Meninas has become my archetypical example of this synergy.  Standing in front of it in that great hall of the Prado, I felt that Velazquez and I were working together to create this viewing experience.

It is key that he is looking at us. He’s daring us with the question, what do you think of this?  What do you make of the dog, and the dwarf, and the cavernous dark upper half of my painting?  Can you imagine the secrets I know of this crazy decadent court of Philip IV?

Yet there is so much Velazquez did not know!  He did not know that Britain and its colonies in America would build a new world as Spain declined ever further. He did not know that the infanta Margarita would die at age 21.  It may be just my fancy, but I like to think that Velazquez had a sense of the uncertainty of the future and the genius to craft a work that would take strength from that uncertainty.

[3 April 2016]