Women in science

Women have contributed much less to the physical sciences than men. It’s depressing and it’s glaring and it almost poisons any discussion of the history of, say, physics or mathematics.

Suppose you accept, as I do, that to the best of our knowledge the sexes are equal in intrinsic ability to do science. That leaves a hierarchy of possible explanations:

(1) Women contribute as much as men, but their contributions are not acknowledged.

(2) Women would be able to contribute as much as men, but they are squeezed out of the profession.

(3) Women would be able to contribute as much as men, but too few end up with the right education and career goals.

In the heat of discussion you will hear people claim that it’s all about (1) and (2), or even just (1). In fact, (3) is probably the biggest explanation, and it is here that we must hope for truly large-scale changes in the future. But (1) and (2) certainly do happen, and one can understand the anger they cause.

[30 November 2017]


Polynomials pure and applied

Algebraic geometry is the purest of pure branches of mathematics, concerned with the intrinsic structure of functions. Its central tool is polynomials, which constitute the very special case of functions you can “write down”.

Chebfun is the most practical of practical branches of mathematics, concerned with machine computing with functions. And its central tool is polynomials too! Mine is the kind of mind that needs to know, are algebraic geometers and Chebfunners interested in polynomials ultimately for the same reason, or different?

I think they are different.  The starting point of algebraic geometry is that, given a function f and a point a, there is a polynomial that exactly matches f and its derivatives at a. The starting point of Chebfun is that, given a function f and an interval [a,b], there is a polynomial that approximately matches f on [a,b] to any prescribed accuracy.

[9 October 2014]

Safety tips

Some maxims seem so natural one assumes they must have been expressed many times before. Here are two that I’ve shared with Emma and Jacob at various ages.

For cyclists (or drivers, or skiers):
Never do anything surprising.

In the restaurant (or the bar, or at home):
Never drink when you’re thirsty.

[6 January 2018]

Yuji Nakatsukasa meets Russell’s paradox

Over coffee we were discussing how to respond to a referee report and I commented to Yuji, “You’re much nicer than I am.” Yuji being so nice, I pretty much expected him to respond, “Oh, no, that’s not true!” He didn’t say that, however, because one must not contradict the professor.

[2 June 2017]

New Zealand English is missing two words

The Kiwis (as they happily call themselves) are great at slang. A sauvignon blanc is a sav, a pavlova is a pav, and a holiday house a bach. What a friendly place to spend two weeks.

But do you know what’s missing? They have no nicknames for the two great halves of their country: just stodgy “North Island” and “South Island”.

[5 December 2017]

Iceland and USA, Lyon and New York

During a holiday in Iceland some years ago it amused me to learn how the USA manages to have 1000 times the population of Iceland. Approximately speaking it’s 10 times as long, 10 times as wide, and 10 times as densely populated.

I’ve just arrived to live in Lyon after a stay in New York and noticed that these cities have something in common: their heart is an angled peninsula running north-south between two rivers.  And how does Manhattan manage to have 27 times the population of Lyon’s Presqu’île? You guessed it. Approximately speaking it’s 3 times as long, 3 times as wide, and — this time we can say it less abstractly — 3 times as tall!

[8 November 2017]

American guns, French cigarettes

In the USA, roughly speaking, everybody has a gun.  This big awful fact stares you in the face. Europeans find it inexplicable. It’s just so obvious, why don’t the Americans prohibit these killing machines?

In France, roughly speaking, everybody smokes. I’ve arrived for a year, and it’s strange how this fact feels similar.  Americans find it incomprehensible. It’s just so obvious, why don’t the French just quit?

I feel oddly optimistic about these pathologies. Eventually, sloppily, rationality more or less prevails. The Americans will lose their guns one day, and the French will lose their cigarettes. But it will take generations, for habits steep into us, and we come to feel they are part of our identity. I’m sitting outside a bar right now in Vieux Lyon, smoke all around, and the very smokiness adds to that agreeable feeling of Frenchness.

[24 Oct 2017]