The last couple of weeks, all the blogs and sites I usually visit are full of Top Ten and other year-end lists. I thought that on this New Year’s Eve I would jump on the bandwagon and share my own list of random things that caught my attention this past year, but didn’t necessarily make it to the blog. So here it is, a far-from-definitive Top Ten list of things that caught the attention of this early-career mathematician.
- Henry Segerman’s YouTube channel. I discovered it early last year while prepping for my Complex Analysis class. Henry has made some really cool 3D printed sculptures to explain stereographic projection, and I sent the video on his channel to my students. But there is a lot of cool stuff to explore (and if you are so inclined, to order so you can use the actual sculptures in your class or to decorate your office). I also know Henry from grad school, and he is a super cool mathematician/person/artist, and I hope you all get to meet him some day.
- Teaching evaluations are terrible. And I don’t mean that my teaching evaluations were terrible, but rather that they are a really poor way to actually evaluate effective teaching. This is not really news for those of you who have spent any time thinking about it, but there were two articles this year that really resonated with me. In her post on Slate Magazine,Rebecca Schuman makes a very strong case on why teaching evaluations are essentially useless when evaluating good teaching. I liked that she took to Twitter to gather some horrific comments from her followers which exposed some of the bias behind student teaching evaluations (like “She wasn’t an angry black woman (surprise!), but she’s wayyyy too liberal” — yes, a student actually wrote that). On a more research-y end of things, a study conducted by researchers Lillian McNell, Adam Driscoll, and Andrea Hunt, shows that there is bias when evaluating female professors compared to male professors, even if there is no interaction between the students and the professor (this was done blindly through an online course). There is a write-up of this research in Amanda Marcotte’s column in Slate, and you can find a press release by two of the authors here. So there it is, student evaluations are not really that informative. So you might as well use this random course evaluation generator (which is actually pretty fun).
- We lost a couple of great mathematicians. First, Robert Coleman in March, and then Alexander Grothendieck in November. There were many obituaries for Grothendieck, but I think my favorite one is this one by David Mumford and John Tate, not only for the beautiful explanation of Grothendieck’s work, but also for the ensuing debate with Nature Magazine. I think it is a really interesting exercise for all mathematicians to try to explain really advanced work to non-experts, and that it’s OK to fall a bit short. For Coleman, I will point you to Matt Baker’s awesome blog for a heartfelt and lively post on his life and work.
- Eventually, all math can be applied math. OK, that probably made some of you really angry, but I love it when something really abstract pops up in applications. It is my chance to show my family and non-math friends (I have a couple) that what I do, even though completely abstract and unrelated to real life, might still be applied to “real-life” problems eventually. OK, probably not anything that I do, but you get the idea. In particular, I got really excited when I saw this article saying that Paul Klemperer, an economist, was using tropical geometry to help the Bank of England implement an auction system that might be more robust.
- Active learning is gathering steam. There have been many articles this year, most of which I have forgotten (my apologies), but here is one of many that made me extremely happy. My favorite quote: “Teaching methods have not yet adapted to the invention of the printing press.”
- Hipsters <3 math. Not that math is really hip (yet!), but Jonathan Touboul recently used a mathematical/neuroscience model to explain trends in non-trendy communities (like hipsters). On a different hipster note, Pitchfork recently published a nice profile on mathematician/musician Dan Snaith, better known as Caribou. I have no idea how he was able to make an album (a successful one) and finish his Ph.D. (in Number Theory!) at the same time (I could barely do one of these things). Favorite hipster by far.
- A woman won the Fields Medal. I did write about his in previous post, so I won’t repeat myself here. But the one thing that sticks out is that somehow most of the pieces written by non-mathematicians seemed to imply that the gender problem in math would somehow be solved by this. I want to share this really thoughtful op-ed by Francis Su in the LA Times for some perspective on the topic.
- You do math? Finally, someone wrote a perfect response to the annoying answers that mathematicians get when they tell people what they do for a living. Here it is, courtesy of Jordy Greenblatt.
- People hate common core. There has been a lot of controversy on this issue. I won’t share all of the videos that most of us have seen by now on facebook, but I will share this article, which explains what common core is trying to do, even if it does make math “more difficult”. In a nutshell, what we know as simple math is a list of algorithms and recipes, but it teaches us nothing about what is really going on. Understanding what is going on is definitely more difficult than following a recipe, but makes later learning and application of what we have learned much easier and more efficient in the long run.
- The sexy PhD. Someone actually made and sold a “sexy Ph.D.” costume on Amazon. The comments made by female Ph.D.s were amazingly funny. Here is a compilation of the best comments, which came out in November.
- BONUS: This blog post didn’t come out this year, but was shared with me by its author, Jordan Ellenberg, when I expressed my excitement that my sister (a biologist) works with ultrametrics. Super cool.
Like I said, this probably misses a lot of more important stuff (did you know that Ken Ono and his collaborators’ research got to be runners up for Discover Magazine’s biggest story of the year? ). But this is what comes to mind when thinking back through the year, things I read, things I shared, and things I thought about. Please, share your favorites in the comments section below.
I now leave you with my favorite comic of the year, which accurately represents how my research is currently going (unfortunately). Happy New Year, everyone!