Mathematicians On A Plane

Forgive the obvious humble brag, but all the traveling I’ve done this summer has me worn out. I’m posting to you from Hamburg today, where I’m enjoying some interstitial time between conferences. To most mathematicians, summer means travel, and travel means flying. And sometimes, flying can bring on some funny things.

There is a classic urban legend about the algebraic geometer who was detained, arrested, and possibly stripsearched, depending on which account you read, for discussing “blowing up points on the plane,” while waiting in the security screening line on the way home from a conference. Of course we know the blowup is a common tool in algebraic geometry, but I’ll be darned if it doesn’t sound exactly like a plot to take down an airplane. I’m not sure how true the story is. It exists in the oral tradition of mathematical urban legends, and more recently on the math overflow thread, but I’d be curious: if you were the guy who was detained/arrested/stripsearched, let us know.

In a similar turn, but unfortunately entirely true, a man was detained earlier this year for doing math on a plane. He was an economist working out some PDE’s when his seat-mate pegged him as a suspected terrorist. Now there was a lot at play here, certainly this is a blatant case of racial profiling, confusion about what math is, and mostly just the presence of a crazy lady on a plane.

Mathematicians under a plane from xkcd.

Mathematicians under a plane from xkcd.

But on that theme, who among us hasn’t — likely prompted by some furious last minute TeXing, or on-board paper refereeing — had to come out to their neighbor as a mathematician. Now the above reaction is really rare, and I suppose all professions get their strange reactions (I’m always glad I’m not a gastroenterologist…or a priest) but something about being a mathematician makes people really spill their guts to you in a very unique way. And surely I’m not alone when I say, IT’S SO UNCOMFORTABLE. Complete strangers want to instantly put it all out on the seat-back tray table: explaining how bad they are at math (“No like really, I’m horrible! Watch, give me two numbers, I can’t even add them!”), apologizing for not trying harder, blaming the bad teachers, praising their good teachers, digging into their genetic legacy for some sort of explanation (“My grandfather on my mother’s side had such a head for math, but I don’t take after him, oh no, definitely not, I’m all grandma.”), and yearning for some kind of absolution that I simply can’t give.

And then there are the people who look at you like you just farted in their confined airspace and obviously hate your guts, kinda like this.

Either way, it’s a strange thing. And I should be clear, I have no aversion to coaching students through serious math anxiety, or helping anxious people learn math, in fact that’s one of my favorite things to do. I also think it’s fine to not be good at stuff (don’t go spreading this around or anything, but there’s plenty of stuff that I’m not good at). I’m just always surprised to get so much emotional baggage dumped on my head by a complete stranger, and my desire to contain it all is overwhelming.

So, with that, safe travels to everyone this summer and enjoy all that fun airplane stuff.

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