Epsilon and Beyond

Origami Paper Crane

This is me, flying beyond epsilon! Photo by Rachel Ridenour.

I started writing for PhD + Epsilon in 2014, when I was just starting my third (!) academic job (my double fabulous co-blogger, Sara Malec, started at the same time; we took it over from the extremely fantastic Adriana Salerno).  For the last four and a half years I’ve been really thrilled to tell stories about my life and help others tell theirs through this blog. But, alas, it’s time to let someone else take the wheel. Folks, this is my last PhD + Epsilon entry.  Stepping away got me thinking back on what this blog has meant in my life, and what I hoped to bring to others through my writing.

I started reading PhD + Epsilon when I was in graduate school. I hadn’t entered grad school planning to get a PhD. At that point I was committed, but I still felt ambivalent about academic life and about going all in on math. I also had no idea what I was going to do with this degree when I finished. In fact, I still had few ideas on what, if anything, I was going to do with the degree when I graduated in 2011 and started my first job as a visiting professor at Wesleyan University. My choice to give liberal arts teaching a try owes quite something to Adriana’s blog entries—her warmth and openness in sharing her experiences sketched a sort of roadmap of the possibilities of one kind of life in math. Exactly how does person pick up and move to a new place, start a job, learn how to be a great teacher, do research, and stay really excited about math?  This, and more, is all in Adriana’s PhD + Epsilon posts.  They spoke to me in making that first transition and the many I have made since.

In 2014, as a freshly minted Associate Professor, Adriana moved on to co-edit the Inclusion/Exclusion blog, which I love. Getting tenure is a pretty sweet way to end the “early” stage of a career and move on from an early career-focused blog. No, I didn’t secretly get tenure without sharing it on the blog, and I’m not leaving academia or anything like that. I’m moving on because, tenure or no, eventually epsilon gets big enough that it needs a new name (lest we risk absurdities like “let epsilon approach infinity”).  Friends, my epsilon is now seven and a half years and four jobs. So much epsilon! It has been a winding path for sure.  But that’s part of the story that I’ve been trying to share for the last several years—there are a lot of different paths through mathematical life, not all of them go in any sort of straight line, and tenure is not the one thing that can mark success or progress along the way. An early career in mathematics can go many different ways; it doesn’t have to mean young, pre-tenure in a tenure-track academic job, research-oriented, or any other single thing.  Starting out in math is the uniting feature.  The career can be almost anything.

pentagon billiard earring

Many paths on a pentagonal billiard table, and many paths in math. Beautiful earring and mathematics by Diana Davis, earrings available at the Joint Meetings and on etsy. Photo by Rachel Ridenour.

I have many mathematical goals, but my main career goal has been to figure out how to make the possibilities and realities of the profession work for me; I want to do a good job for the people around me while making my work as much as possible a reflection of my own passions. In this early stage, I have been pretty successful in some aspects of this, and hope to keep getting better at using the framework of the mathematical profession to do the things that I think matter—in research, teaching, and interacting with the larger world.  This blog has been a big part of the process for me. In the academic world, we spend so much time applying for things—jobs, grants, awards, promotion… it is a whole system of ranking and rewards that can seem like the only way to success and validation.  But many of the most satisfying things in my mathematical (and non-mathematical) life have come through stepping away from this machine and looking for another way to do what I really want. One thing that I really wanted to do was talk to people about their math lives, hear what they have learned and how they see the world around them. That’s not necessarily an easy thing to start on in a field where some people seem to think that intellectual intimidation and arrogance is the natural order of things.  Lucky for all of us, there are way more awesome math people out there and this blog has given me a way to connect with them (you!), both as readers and as people who respond when I reach out for a piece I’m writing.  This blog has been my platform, in the sense of a tall thing that I can stand on and talk loudly about my ideas, and also a solid scaffold from which I have built connections.

Being part of the AMS through this blog has been wonderful. They have supported me in every way.  I have not always been the most punctual blogger, and sometimes when I needed to write a blog but also needed to write a test and do a thousand other things, I would think, “why does blogging even matter?” But as soon as I had a minute to breathe and listen to myself, it was clear that this was an amazing way to do what mattered to me—ask questions, tell stories, and help more people feel connected to this community.  Thanks so much to the AMS, especially Mike Breen and Annette Emerson, for the opportunity and the support. And thanks to everyone to has read the blog or shared with me. I am very grateful for it.  YOU ARE AWESOME. I still want to hear about your life in math—if you have read this far, you know that’s why I’ve been doing this at all. I’d like to invite everyone out there to keep the conversation going.  To ease my blog withdrawal pangs, I’ll be blogging for AMS at the Joint Meetings in Baltimore in a couple weeks, so say hello if you see me around!  Wishing you all the best in the New Year and beyond.

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Review: The Story of Maths

I’ve got a baby taking up at least one arm for hours and hours every day, and not a ton of brainpower to focus on anything too intense. So I’ve been ripping through some history documentaries, and the drier the better. Soon the 2008 BBC series The Story of Maths appeared in my Netflix recommendations.

I don’t read or watch much pop science media, because a lot of it is just kinda lousy. It’s easy to see why: explaining complex ideas is hard enough when the audience has some of the necessary vocabulary and mathematical maturity. But when you can’t assume any level of fluency, often the best you can do is give a little hint of what’s going on. It’s like trying to perform Shakespeare with only shadow puppets and grunts.

In The Story of Maths, Oxford Professor Marcus du Sautoy describes the biggest ideas in math, using history as an entry point. The first episode tackles ancient mathematical history, finishing with the Greeks; the second profiles Asian and Arabic advances and their lead into Renaissance Europe; the third European Enlightenment math; and the last wraps up with the 20th century, centered largely around Hilbert’s problems. And they’re neat explorations. Du Sautoy actually manages to do a pretty thorough and accurate∗ plow through thousands of years of math in only four hours.

A challenge for documentary series is what to put on the screen while somebody talks. This series is part math lecture, part travelogue. Du Sautoy explains Egyptian math in front of the Pyramids, Chinese math in Tiananmen Square. He visits Euler’s old school in St. Petersburg, and a monument to Cantor in Germany. It makes for beautiful backgrounds, and has given me some ideas for where to go on future math side trips.

The series visualizes a lot of the mathematical concepts they talk about. Sometimes du Sautoy uses handy objects – food from a Syrian marketplace and a scale to describe how the Mesopotamians solved systems of linear equations, for example. For more complicated displays, the series uses computer graphics. Sometimes it’s used well – their visual proof of the Pythagorean theorem is nice and straightforward – and sometimes…less so. CGI just appears for its own sake here and there, without really clarifying anything, and it sometimes comes off straight-up corny.

The real problem with the series is exactly what I said at the beginning: it’s hard to make a series for a general audience, especially one only four hours long. It’s necessarily fairly superficial with its treatment of mathematics. The explanation of how Egyptians multiply numbers was fast but probably understandable to pretty much anybody. The geometric way Mesopotamians solved quadratics at least gives you a feel for the technique. But as the series progresses, it starts to get hard to see any of the meat of the algorithms or concepts in the brief descriptions, unless you already know them to begin with.

That’s not to say mathematicians won’t enjoy the series. I loved the details that bring some of these people to life. Descartes was a mercenary! Poincaré preferred to work two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening, and just ponder math the rest of the day while doing other things! Euler’s descendant pronounces his name the way we’re all told not to say it! And it’s incredible to see how much the ancients were able to do without algebra, or even useful numerals.

Naturally, women are few and far between. There’re no women at all between Hypatia and Julia Robinson (Noether and Kovalevsky are mentioned on the way), unless you count an extensive description of Kurt Gödel’s very patient wife, or a bizarre story about a method to allow a Chinese emperor to sleep with all the members of his harem in a limited time. Nobody’s expecting 50-50 parity here, but a couple quick dives into some other female mathematicians would have been nice. There were at least a number of modern female mathematicians and historians interviewed, especially in the first episode where we hear a lot from Annette Imhausen and Eleanor Robson. Unfortunately none of the talking head scholars get named on-screen in the Netflix version, I assume due to an aspect ratio conversion problem.

I’m sometimes a little jealous of my professor friends in the humanities who show videos in class. I’ve never seen a video that would be an efficient use of class for more than a few minutes. I’d still never show these in their entirety, even in the history of math class. But there are a few excerpts that might be a nice way to break up a class period. And the anecdotes I picked up will definitely make their way into future classes. Students really like these biographical and historical details, and they help reinforce that math didn’t spring fully-formed from textbooks, but took thousands of years of hard work from fallible human beings to develop. If you’re looking for some low-impact, quiet tv over the break, you might enjoy it!

*There are a couple disappointing descents into numerology around the golden ratio and the Fibonacci sequence, and from what I know Plutarch’s account of Archimedes’ death is apocryphal.

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Hello from Parental Leave

Well. That happened.

Charlie arrived five weeks ago, right after the first big snowstorm of the season. He gave us a scare on the way out and wound up in the NICU for a few days, but he was home by Thanksgiving. He’s been a fairly easy baby so far, and we’re enjoying figuring out exactly how to handle him. Once we’ve mostly got it down, he completely changes and we start over. Kinda feels like school all over again.

I’ve been on leave since the second week of November. I almost felt like I needed the time off more before the birth than after. During the last month of pregnancy, getting put on bedrest turned from my worst nightmare into a secret dream. Often I could only sleep an hour or two a night. I wasn’t in pain, was even still walking to work a few times a week, but the exhaustion was too much. I was barely keeping my head above water.

I think this every semester, and it always turns out ok, but this time I mean it: these are going to be the worst student evaluations of my career. And they won’t be entirely undeserved. I swear I did my best.

My department picked up the last weeks of the semester for me. They are getting paid, but given that they’re receiving the pro-rated adjunct rate, they might as well be doing it out of the kindness of their hearts. I think the transition went reasonably well but maybe people are saving their complaints until I’m back. The school sent me a lovely congratulatory philodendron the other day, so I’m taking that as a sign that nobody went straight to the Provost at least.

At five weeks out, I’m starting to actually look forward to starting back at work, though I’m very thankful it’ll only be part time to start. The most intellectually stimulating thing I’ve done since I left work is figure out how to clear up diaper rash. It’s a change of pace to be sure. And a not unwelcome one, but it wouldn’t be sustainable for me for long. No shade to the stay-at-home parents out there at all – it’s an incredibly hard job – but it’s just not one I’m suited to. I’ve written before about how poorly I do off a schedule. I guess I do have a schedule now, but it’s one created by my son, and he doesn’t let me see it in advance.

So that’s pretty much what I’ve been up to. My first December without grading in a decade, but somehow my days are still packed. Good luck to all of you as you finish your grades and slide into the holidays!


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