For the past two months I have sat at my desk doing mathematics, while on the lawn out the window, a blackbird has been hopping about finding worms. He’s there in the morning and he’s there at noon and he’s there in the evening. He hops, he stops, he hops again. All day long.
I remarked to Kate, what an empty and meaningless life he leads! She countered that the blackbird probably thinks my life is meaningless too.
So I have refined my view, appreciating my good fortune to be sharing this confinement with such an agreeable colleague.
[25 May 2020]
I updated my profile on italki, including date of birth, and I ticked the box “Allow people to view my age.” Why not?
Then I checked how my profile appeared online and I was horrified. My age was showing as 65! Why, I’m only 64, not 65, and I won’t be 65 until August! What a blunder of programming! How deeply they had got me wrong!
I immediately went back and unticked the box.
[11 April 2020]
The pandemic so consumes us that everything exists in reference to the big story. As I chopped an onion for dinner, my eyes started burning. Instantly I realized this was a model of how virus particles can undetected reach our face.
[11 April 2020]
Today for the first time ever, because of the coronavirus pandemic, Balliol’s Governing Body meeting was held online. We didn’t do this in 1348 (Black Death) or 1665 (Great Plague).
[16 March 2020]
A colleague tells me that among students and faculty in economics these days, it’s hard to find people who are genuinely interested in how economies work. Instead they are wrapped up in the technicalities of the mathematical models they have been trained to analyze. Give the students an exam question that requires thought about fundamentals, he tells me, and rather little comes back.
It’s the same in mathematics! It may sound paradoxical, but here, too, students and researchers are distracted, and excessively impressed, by mathematical technicalities. Give the students an exam question that requires thought about what the point of a mathematical construction is and — I speak from long experience — they will hurry off in search of more technical questions, where they can turn the crank.
One might have thought that mathematics would be the one field immune to the problem of being dazzled by mathematics. But in fact, it’s just as bad here as elsewhere, maybe worse, since camouflaged.
[11 March 2020]
Often physicists do something new, and mathematicians later make it rigorous. Generally the physicists couldn’t care less, and as for the mathematicians, they quickly forget the physicists’ part in the story.
Here’s an example in the beloved book by Körner on Fourier series. In 1909 the physicist Jean Perrin, building on Einstein’s paper of 1905, realized that Brownian motion trajectories are continuous but nowhere differentiable. This was made mathematically rigorous in the 1920s by Norbert Wiener and Paul Levy. Körner summarizes Wiener’s construction with the words, “In accordance with Perrin’s prophetic remarks [the Brownian paths] turned out to be continuous and nowhere differentiable”.
Prophetic remarks! Once again, it would seem, a physicist had struck it lucky.
[8 March 2020]
The outstanding mathematician Louis Nirenberg died January 26. I knew him from my own times at NYU, and I liked him very much. Nirenberg was a mensch.
But how exasperating to read the obituary in Nature describing him as “skating above emerging distinctions between pure and applied mathematics”. What nonsense! Nirenberg was the quintessential pure mathematician. He was no more an applied mathematician than Einstein was an electrical engineer.
This imperialist point of view is all too familiar, and it drives me crazy. Pure mathematicians like to think mathematics is one, and as some kind of a corollary, it follows that the great pure mathematicians encompass the applied side too. For a few, like von Neumann, this may be true. For most, it’s preposterous.
[5 March 2020]
Books and movies nowadays have settled on a comfortable position regarding bad people. A bad adult was very likely abused as a child, and this has something to do with why they ended up bad, without, of course, excusing it.
Regarding the influence of countries on their citizens as opposed to families on their children, we take a curiously different position. Some governments are bad, we agree. The people of these countries, however, are good. We may criticize the wicked practices of the regime that has driven country X into the ground in the past 50 years, but we have nothing against the ordinary citizens of X, who are fine, decent people.
I wish it were so, but I think our model of families may be more accurate than our model of nations. My suspicion is that if a society is prosperous and fair, its citizens tend to be trustworthy and open, and if a society is venal and corrupt, they tend to be grasping. Of course, these are statistical statements, with a thousand exceptions. But I suspect it’s true on average.
Americans used to be famous for their corn-fed openness. Here in the age of Trump, they may be changing.
[22 February 2020]
Fifty years ago today, as a young teenager in Lexington, Massachusetts, I typed my first index card note. Naturally I have an interest in others who have followed a similar habit. Lichtenberg, Leopardi, Maugham, Manguso. Emily Dickinson, Michael Frayn, Samuel Butler. B. F. Skinner, N. N. Taleb. I happily regard these as kindred spirits through the ages, and I keep their books on a special shelf.
Lichtenberg wrote notes for more than 30 years, and Butler more than 40. Tomorrow I’ll be past 50!
[14 February 2020]
Edward VII was 59 when he ascended the throne, and Prince Charles is already 71. As Wikipedia puts it, he is “the oldest and longest-serving heir apparent in British history”.
I’ve realized that three different effects conspire to make it particularly unfortunate to succeed a Queen — a perfect storm of actuarial bad luck. First, of course, women live longer than men (Victoria to 81, Elizabeth to 93 so far). Second, women marry younger than men (Victoria was 20, Elizabeth 21).
Now these two effects apply to all of us, making our mothers last a decade longer than our fathers. But there’s a third factor that hits royals especially. If you are the Queen, or destined to be crowned as such, don’t imagine you can spend a few years after the wedding working on the relationship! No, the babies must come immediately. Edward arrived 12 months into the marriage, and Charles 21. Their mothers were practically teenagers.
[8 February 2020]