Mathematical Instruments: Peter Cameron’s Blog

November 24, 2012 § 2 Comments

Mathematical Instruments.

Mathematical Instruments

via Wikimedia Commons

This post is part of the series Mathematical Instruments in which we introduce you to some of the math bloggers listed on our site. Today:

Peter Cameron

What’s your blog’s name? Any other places (Twitter, Google+, Facebook etc) we can find you on?

The blog is unimaginatively named “Peter Cameron’s Blog“, but I use the name Cameron Counts, taken from a novel by Richard Brautigan, “The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western”, one of whose heroes was called Cameron. His trademark was counting things.

I don’t do Twitter etc.; I am on Facebook only because I wanted to comment on something and found I had to join and then couldn’t unjoin. I never go there! I am a bit of a technophobe really: at my age, I don’t have to apologise for this. I do run another blog, qmdiscrete.wordpress.com, for the Centre for Discrete Mathematics at my university; and I have a personal web page which has some features of a blog (such as a “photo of the month” taken on one of my walks) at www.maths.qmul.ac.uk/~pjc.

Would you tell us a little bit more about yourself?  E.g., Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your (scientific) background?

I’m Australian, but moved to Britain when I was 21, and am still here at the age of 65. So I am a child of the 1960s, and have kept the liberal attitude that goes with that.

I have lived in East London for the last fifteen years, quite close to where I work. This is an excellent place to live: a vibrant urban community, and with excellent transport links for when I want to get away (as, for example, when the Olympic Games were on earlier this year).

I am the sort of mathematician who is not good at delving deep; I would rather find unexpected connections between apparently unrelated fields. One of my most cited papers connected up root systems (from the theory of Lie algebras) with graph spectra.

If you divide mathematicians into discrete and continuous (prickly or gooey, as Alan Watts said), I am definitely on the discrete side.

When and how did you first discover mathematical blogs? When did you start blogging? Why did you start?

I will answer these three questions together, since it is all the same story. A few years ago the London Mathematical Society was in the middle of a heated debate over whether to merge with the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications. A group of mathematicians I respected were running a blog in support of one side of the debate; when things turned nasty and lawyers were called in, they (as officers of the society) had to take their hands off, and asked me to take over as an administrator of the blog. This was all entirely new to me, so I thought I would start up my own blog first, so I could make my mistakes in private. At that stage, I really had no idea what a blog was.

Of course, I found that it was quite addictive, and was a good way of letting off steam when the bosses had done something that really annoyed me, by having a public rant about it; so I have just kept going.

What do you write about?

More than half of what I write about is mathematics, mostly expository. If I discover a new piece of mathematics, I want to tell people about it; but I like to do expositions aimed at non-specialists, such as a series of a dozen posts about the symmetric groups. I find that these are among the most popular and long-lived of my posts; there is often one of the symmetric group series among my top ten.

As well as that, I write about the mechanics of teaching, the technology (one of my most popular posts was about how to use non-default LaTeX fonts in Beamer presentations), and the politics; and I am not averse to talking about my hobbies, such as walking, music, and poetry, from time to time.

What wouldn’t have happened to you without the internet?

Many things! One of the best things about the internet is that people I have never met, from all over the world, get in touch. Often these contacts result in meetings, joint papers, or invitations. But there are several people far away who have commented on my blog, and I regard as friends, as far as you can be friends with someone you haven’t met.

For example, the tagline on my blog, “Always busy counting, doubting every figured guess”, is the start of an abecedarian poem by JoAnne Growney; I get a warm feeling every time she posts a comment.

And there is no doubt that the internet makes mathematical collaboration much easier. I started research in the days when it was necessary to exchange letters with people in America or Australia; the letter would take a week or two and probably cross with one from my collaborator, so work was duplicated unnecessarily and everything went very slowly.

What does the internet need more of?

The problem with the internet is that content is growing faster than tools for dealing with it. Mathematicians need some permanence; our work doesn’t become obsolete for decades, maybe centuries if we are lucky. But if you search for a particular piece of content, recent papers tend to come up; they are maybe at the end of a long chain of citations from the one I am looking for.

Of course the search box will find anything on my blog, but how do you know what to look for? I have a table of contents which is meant to help fill this gap.

Mathematicians on the web have…

Most importantly, the arXiv. All the current debate about open-access and author-pays are largely irrelevant to mathematicians, since most recent papers I am looking for will be there.

It is a little hard to believe that in the early days of the web, not much more than 20 years ago, mathematicians were in the forefront of using it!

Your daily web reading (mathematical or otherwise):

I have three sites I look at regularly:

  • Astronomy Picture of the Day (a feast for the eyes)
  • Diamond Geezer (a blogger who lives just down the road from me, and knows everything about what is going on in our part of London)
  • XKCD (another person I am sure I would get on with if we ever met)

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