The great plateau of middle age

It’s October, start of a new year.  Having purchased my blue Oxford diary for 2013-2014, I’ve just put 2012-2013 on the shelf.  The stack is 16 high now, beginning with 1997-1998.

Life has its rhythms, on different time scales.  You get a cup of coffee every few hours, go to bed once a day, put the trash out each Friday… and put the old diary on the stack each October.  The top of my stack is rising around one centimeter per year, so its velocity is slightly less than that of your average tectonic plate.

As a youngster I used to imagine with fascination the plateau of adulthood, that unending time of regular habits, one day after another, year stretching on year.  Who could comprehend such an infinity?  Here at age 58, I think I’ve reached it.

[25 October 2013]

Who wears shorts in the Andrew Wiles Building?

Slowly, over the generations, cultures adapt to the conditions they face, but year on year we mostly do what we’re used to.

And so it is that among the hundreds of mathematicians here in Oxford’s Andrew Wiles building, there are two who habitually wear short trousers, even in the winter.  Both of these young men get plenty of good-natured kidding on the subject of their dress habits.  Maybe you guess that Cameron and Anthony are from Iceland or northern Russia, finding Britain balmy in comparison?  Of course the truth is just the opposite.  One of them is from sun-baked Queensland, and the other from steamy Texas.

[10 December 2013]

Measuring the output of academics

The two most important things I’ve worked on in the past seven years are Chebfun, a software package that people are using around the world, and Approximation Theory and Approximation Practice, a bestselling SIAM book that is changing perceptions of the mathematical properties of polynomials.  It’s a safe bet that among my “outputs” of the past seven years, these two will have the greatest impact.

Not according to the UK’s assessment scheme known as the Research Excellence Framework, however.  Our department has just sent in its REF submission, reporting for each of 147 researchers their four best outputs from the past seven years.  In theory, the REF welcomes nonstandard outputs, including software.  In practice, everybody is scared to death of deviating from the safe pattern of specialist papers in specialist journals.  Luckily I’ve produced enough of those too.

So neither Chebfun nor ATAP has been included in our REF submission.  Among the more than 500 outputs of Oxford Mathematics for the period 2007-2013, they do not appear.

[13 December 2013]