A Field Guide to Mathematics is a blog by Álvaro Lozano-Robledo, an associate professor of mathematics at the University of Connecticut. He launched the blog this February. It focuses on “stories about mathematics, students, professors, mathematicians, abstract nonsense, research, papers, publishing, and academia,” according to its description.
In an interview conducted over email, Lozano-Robledo answered questions about the blog. (The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)
Rachel Crowell: What inspired you to start a math blog?
Álvaro Lozano-Robledo: I’ve always loved writing stories, since I was a kid. Years ago (pre-tenure-track!) I wrote a bunch of stories – some in English, some in Spanish – that mixed fiction, reality and my own experiences. I submitted some of them to contests in Spain. You can find them here. Some of the stories were published in books about stories about mathematics (see https://www.rsme.es/2009/05/un-teorema-en-la-biblioteca-de-varios-autores-ed-anaya-y-rsme-2009/ and https://www.rsme.es/2008/10/sobre-numeros-y-letras-de-varios-autores-ed-anaya-y-rsme-2007/).
From time to time, people have liked my stories that they have found on my website (mostly “The Importance of Being Bounded,” since it is in English) and have asked if I would write more. I always said “Yes, some day when I have more time.” Well, now in confinement and distancing mode, I have found more time to write.
Recently, I decided to share the stories I am writing in a blog that may be more accessible to people and enter the “blogsphere” to connect with other people writing blogs and writing about math.
RC: On your blog, you describe it as “stories about mathematics, students, professors, mathematicians, abstract nonsense, research, papers, publishing, and academia.” That is a pretty broad set of topics. Is there anything more you would like to share about the types of pieces readers can expect to find on your blog in coming months?
ALR: Sure! My goal is to write about mathematics from a mathematician’s point of view, but not about technical topics. Rather, I’m hoping to write about what it means to be a mathematician, in a way that both mathematicians and non-mathematicians can enjoy and relate to. I’m not sure if I’m achieving my goal, but that’s the focus! For now, I’m just writing the stories that I feel like writing at the moment and those that I am ready to share now.
However, I do have a more global view of the collection of stories that I’d like to put together. They span the entire life of a mathematician, from undergrad, grad school, postdocs, tenure-track to a tenured/permanent position, and include topics about learning math, doing research, discovery, failure, publishing, etc.
In addition to the main theme of the blog, I’d like to include “interludes” of fiction that are written for the sake of writing and entertainment.
RC: What do you envision as the target audience for your blog?
ALR: Continuing with the narrative of the previous answer, I have two audiences in mind.
I’d like to reach non-mathematicians that are curious about what a mathematician does, and how a mathematician works on proving theorems.
I’d also like to reach mathematicians, particularly “mathematicians in training,” who may want to read stories from the point of view of a more senior mathematician. I’m hoping they will relate to these stories or learn useful information about, say, what it’s like to be tenured or what it’s like to be a working mathematician and a parent in a household where both parents work and split childcare evenly. I hope the ‘realism’ in the writing helps people understand that we all struggle sometimes, that we have all gone through tough times and happy times during our careers and that almost all of us fight impostor syndrome.
RC: Other than your own blog, what are some of your favorite math blogs and why?
ALR: I am actually quite interested in the Blog on Math Blogs, because I keep finding out about blogs I didn’t know about or reminding myself of blogs I have not checked out lately. The blog by Matt Baker is excellent. Lately, I’ve been obsessed with Not Even Wrong, particularly the post on the abc conjecture with what I consider the most important comment section in the history of blogs and comment sections! The back and forth between Taylor Dupuy and Peter Scholze is especially gripping.
I also follow the AMS inclusion/exclusion blog, because I learn so much and I feel that I need to keep reading what they write in that blog to be a better member of the community. It is just very important stuff and they are doing a great job covering these very difficult topics. On a related topic, “Alice’s Adventures in Number Land” is an incredible set of stories that are so eye-opening that anyone who is in the business of math should be reading very carefully. After every entry, I am like, “wow.”
I love Jordan Ellenberg’s “Quomodocumque” blog, because I love his style of writing, his ideas and the way he thinks about things.
Now that I have a blog, I am discovering other blogs that I like. For example, I found Anthony Bonato’s recent entry on the pandemic so inspiring that I changed plans for my latest entry and spent a huge amount of time recreating my last 60 days of social isolation in one of my entries in my blog (the Logbook entry).
RC: Out of the posts you have written so far, which one is your favorite and why?
ALR: That’s like asking who is your favorite child! Ha ha. At the risk of hurting the feelings of my other entries, I have to go with the post about Quijote. “El Quijote” is my favorite book of all times, and the only non-math book that I have read more than once. In fact I’ve read it many times. And I had so much fun writing that entry, because I read a bunch of chapters from the Quijote once again, first in Spanish, and then in English, so that I could learn from a translation how the more archaic Spanish had been translated into English. Anyway, I do not expect most people to love that piece, but if anything, I hope it drives some mathematicians to read El Quijote, because it is so much fun, and so incredibly clever, that it is just amazing.
Quijote entry excluded, I think my other favorite piece was the “Love Letter to Birders,” which the reader may surmise is more of a love letter to my brother than anything else. The piece explores the connection of doing research in very specialized fields. I think it’s something that many scientists can relate to: when our passion is misunderstood by a large amount of the population, even our friends.
RC: Are there any suggestions or resources you would like to share with people who are considering starting their own blogs or who have just started one?
ALR: I would love to see more writing by mathematicians! Go ahead and write! It doesn’t need to be a technical piece. I’d love to read more about personal experiences. I’d love to see our field being more humanized.
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