Mathematical Instruments: The Accidental Mathematician

September 14, 2012 § 1 Comment

Mathematical Instruments.

Mathematical Instruments

via Wikimedia Commons

This post is part of the series Mathematical Instruments in which we introduce you to a math blogger. Today:

The Accidental Mathematician, Izabella Laba

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

I blog at The Accidental Mathematician. (The name is a variation on “The Accidental Tourist,” the title of an Anne Tyler book.) I have a professional webpage at UBC (for preprints, CV, teaching), and another one shared with my research group. I also have accounts on Google+, Twitter, and a couple of others that I keep more private. My Google+ page is mostly for photography, although I post math links occasionally and have mathematicians and scientists in my circles. Twitter has long been a source of good links and an easy way to post such links on the sidebar of my blog, but I’ve only recently started to use it to talk with people.

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

I grew up in Poland and did my undergraduate studies at Wroclaw University. I moved to Canada in 1989. I received a Ph.D. degree in mathematics from the University of Toronto in 1994, then held a postdoctoral position at UCLA (1994-97), and an assistant professor position at Princeton University (1997-2000). I have lived in Vancouver and worked at UBC since 2000.

As for my life background (philosophical, cultural, etc), I have already written a few long posts that only scratched the surface. I won’t attempt a one-paragraph explanation here.

When and how did you first discover mathematical blogs?

I have been reading blogs on a regular basis since sometime in the mid-2000s. Most of them have not been math blogs. I was spending enough time on mathematics and work already and felt that my other interests were slipping away. I craved reading about politics, history, social issues, art, books, writing, everything else in life.

I liked the flexibility of the blog format. In the short run, you can adapt it any way you want: posts can be long or very short, formal or not, frequent or scarce, comments might or might not be allowed. Over time, the short pieces add up to a larger body of work. A discussion can be continued over a series of posts, so that one doesn’t have to start from scratch every time. Great communities can form around some of the more popular blogs.

The engaging writing style found on blogs was a welcome reprieve from mathematical writing. Too often, we slip when we write for a captive audience. We tell the reader repeatedly that the subject of our writing is “interesting” or “exciting,” because otherwise they’d never be able to tell. I also loved the creative use of language in blogging. Beautiful things can happen when a good writer is set loose without a copyeditor looking over his or her shoulder.

When did you start blogging? Why did you start? What do you write about?

I started in Fall 2007 and kept a low profile for the first few months while I was sorting out how it worked. Eventually people found it, of course.

I wanted to try writing something other than research papers and grant proposals on a regular basis, preferably for an actual live audience, since otherwise I wasn’t sure I would stay motivated enough in the long run. I didn’t quite know yet what I was going to write, but I would figure it out. This was and always will be the main reason.

Second, my patience was being tested by popular misconceptions and one-dimensional views of university professors, mathematicians, and women in male-dominated professions. Too many people have no idea of what our work actually looks like, but feel that they are entitled to very strong opinions nonetheless. I needed a way to sort through it, not just for my readers (I didn’t even know if I would have any) but also for myself, so that I’d know what to say next time it comes up.

The conversations about women in math were especially annoying. They still are. They keep going around in very small circles: what if there are biological differences, what if there aren’t, what if diversity policies cause more harm than good, what if they don’t, and so on. Once I started writing on the subject, I tried to push the discussion beyond that. It’s difficult. I can write a long argument attempting some nuance, and commenters still tell me that “women are just different” or “but this [insert specific examples from my own experience here] just doesn’t happen.” Still, the posts have been read and linked fairly widely in the community, so hopefully I’ve made some contribution there.

On matters of research and academic policy, I wanted to have my own public voice. I was tired of administrators and self-appointed spokespeople (there are many) expressing opinions on my behalf that I did not agree with.

Once in a while I write about something more personal and unrelated to my profession: art, languages, books, politics. In that regard, I have no agenda or long-term goal; these are subjects that interest me in real life, I read and think about them, and sometimes it gets to the point where I need to write a blog post.

What wouldn’t have happened to you without the internet? What does the internet need more of?

Without the internet, I would have never seen Bowie perform The Elephant Man on Broadway. Now I have – there are several clips posted on YouTube. Seriously.

The internet is great for communicating, networking, disseminating information. I’ve made contacts through the internet that probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise. There is a tendency, though, to speak of “the internet” and “real life” as if they were separate from each other. They’re not. I write on the internet, but the subject of my writing is usually drawn from my life experience. The internet offers instant access to vast stores of information that might not be available to me otherwise, but the value of that information lies in its relation to the actual, non-virtual world. I often seek out older material that pre-dates the internet. When I interact with people online, it is different from meeting them in person, but that does not make it less “real.”

This is a roundabout way of saying that I can’t tell what wouldn’t have happened to me without the internet. The internet is a means, not an end, and I would have likely sought the same ends by whatever means might have been available instead.

Mathematicians on the web have…

probably forgotten what life was like before the internet. We can be awfully slow to adapt new technologies when the effort involved might, in our judgement, trump the benefits. Clickers and in-class educational videos have elicited a mixed response at best. The internet, though, offered a solution to a problem that clearly needed one. The dissemination of research really used to be a problem in ye goode olde days. Now, the author can post a paper on the arXiv the day it’s finished, the interested researchers download it the next day, then use the results in their own research a month or two later. Can’t argue with that.

Your daily web reading (mathematical or otherwise):

I read a wide variety of books and articles: fiction and non-fiction, old and new. I’m not sure how to separate my “web reading” from reading in general. If I download a classic book from Project Gutenberg, does that count as web reading? That said, there is a remarkable variety of writing available on the internet, and I’ve learned not to dismiss any part of it for superficial reasons. Some of the best writing I’ve found on the web has been near the far end of the “long tail,” on obscure subjects that nonetheless mean the world to the author.

If we restrict it to blogs, then it’s easier to pick my favourite: Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Atlantic, by a large margin. If I could only read one blog, that would be it, for the range of topics, the depth of analysis, the fantastic writing, and the best comment section I’ve seen anywhere. After that, it gets pretty diverse again. I check a number of math blogs on a regular basis, but I also read general interest blogs leaning towards science, culture and politics (Boing Boing, 3 Quarks Daily) as well as blogs written by writers, scientists, historians, artists, musicians. This is stuff I used to get second-hand from newspapers or magazines, but now I can go directly to the source of the information. That’s one of the best things about the internet.

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