It’s Mathematics Awareness Day at my home institution of Ryerson University. In honour of the occasion, I wrote a special blog cataloguing a day in the life of a mathematician (me!). Also, I am taking over @ on Twitter for the day. There will be special tweets and surprises there. Watch out for #FOSBoss!
“Woke up, fell out of bed. Dragged a comb across my head…” The Beatles.
Light is trickling in from under the bedroom door, and I’m sweating. This summer is sweltering. As a good Canadian, I miss the cold. I’m thinking about my latest math problem as I stare at the gray shadows on the ceiling.
No solution yet, but I feel close. Working on math research problem is like finding a lost treasure. All you need is to look in the right place. A dose of luck helps too.
This morning I am fuzzy headed. I shouldn’t have stayed up until one am reading about the geometry of Banach spaces. I prefer the clean dots and lines of my native field of graph theory.
Starbucks activates my brain. My drink choices are very edgy: I have graduated to a grande decaf Soy latte. When I am feeling adventurous, I make it a venti. The great mathematician Paul Erdős famously said: “mathematicians are machines for turning coffee into theorems”. Perhaps. Some days I feel like I turn theorems into coffee.
I enjoy most the quiet of early morning and late night. Mathematical thoughts crystallise in my brain more readily when there is quiet and everyone else is sleeping. Have you ever seen a group of mathematicians chatting in a noisy restaurant? They look on edge. Put them in a windowless room with a white board, however, and they are in their happy place.
Today my early morning is filled with necessary adminis-trivia. Fill out this form. Write this letter of reference. Judge these applications. Write this referee report. Mark these assignments…
I don’t think people realise how much bureaucracy goes into being a mathematician.
Adminis-trivia complete! Meeting with a grad student now. She’s nearly finished her Master’s thesis, so this is just a check in on her progress.
The meeting went well: short but productive. My student is heading off to doctoral work and I’m always supportive of my students with their academic goals.
Now I can focus on the purely fun stuff. After I fuel my body with food, that is. The notion of mathematical research is confusing to people. Questions I’ve heard over the years resonate in my brain like buzzing bees.
“You work with really big numbers, right?”
Well no. Sort of. Our propositions are conceptual, and may deal with numbers, but also with other constructs like functions, matrices, or networks. Mathematics is about finding structure in patterns.
“Hasn’t everything in math been done?”
No way. In fact, we’ve barely scratched the surface. Our field is full of conjectures, open problems, and unresolved dilemmas. That’s OK, however. Mathematicians like problems. And they can have attitude, like Gödel.
I am back focusing on my geometric graph theory problem. Feeling tired by mid afternoon. Time for dark chocolate!
OK folks, let’s get real. Erdős was rumored to have a Benzedrine habit. But DARK CHOCOLATE. That is my drug of choice. It’s legal and they sell it in health food stores. I go for the good stuff, 70% or even 85%. It makes my tongue taste like chalk, but I like it.
Friday night and I am at party hosted by one of my non-mathematician friends. While chatting with strangers, the inevitable question arrives.
“So what is that you do” a stranger asks clutching a glass of Pinot Grigio.
“I’m a mathematician,” I respond. Gulp.
“I hated math in high school.” There. He said it.
“Well, yes, most high school math instruction isn’t very inspiring…” Forever the diplomat.
“I just can’t help it. I liked all my subjects except math.” Think quick, change the topic.
But tonight I can’t resist. The struggle with my latest open research problem is still fresh. Or maybe it’s the Pinot.
“Actually, math comes up everywhere. From how our smart phones communicate, to the patterns we find in the proteins interacting in our body, to understanding the fluctuations of the stock market…”
“Wow. That’s all over my head. I’m going to get another drink.”
See that, dear readers? Now do you feel my pain?
Next time I am going to lie and say that I drive a truck or work as a fish monger. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be an HR consultant.
It’s tough convincing people math is cool.
I curl up in bed and stare into the darkness. I can see lines and edges popping and fading into the background. As I drift off and my subconscious takes over, the lines start to connect. Reminds me of the mattress commercial with Maria Chudnovsky.
By morning the problem will be solved. There is something magical when you solve an open mathematical problem. I wish everybody could experience that feeling, even just once.
I must be dreaming.