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To teach, must I principally research?

A couple of weeks ago at the HE STEM Conference I saw a keynote lecture by Sir Alan Langlands, Chief Executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England. During a questions session following this, I was surprised to be handed the microphone but apparently I had raised my hand. I asked a question. Quite a number of people approached me during the remaining day-and-a-half of the conference to say what a good question it had been so I thought I would share it here.

Sir Alan had spoken about the challenges facing STEM in HE and about the legacy of the National HE STEM Programme. On the latter, reflecting the hope that much of the HE STEM activity will develop into ongoing practice in universities, he said he hoped we wouldn’t think of this as the end but as a beginning. He also spoke about challenges affecting the sector in terms of Goverment initiatives and other factors, and the important of teaching and learning, research, etc. When I was handed the microphone I said into this something like the following.

I was interested that you spoke about looking to the future. I work for a former Higher Education Academy Subject Centre on a project funded by the National HE STEM Programme. So my contract ends tomorrow1. I aspire to being a lecturer who takes a professional research interest in his teaching but almost every job advert I read has number 1 ‘a PhD in mathematics’ and number 2 ‘ability to bring in research income’. So, while I shouldn’t ask such a personal question, I suppose I’m asking: should I acquire a research topic or plan a different career?

I’m afraid that extreme nervousness has made what happened next a bit of a blur. I certainly don’t feel like I got a satisfactory answer and several of the people who congratulated me on my question said as much to me. Perhaps someone who was there will be able to fill in more of the details via the comments.

He, quite rightly, addressed the general point rather than my specific circumstances. He certainly spoke about some universities increasingly making available career routes – both hiring new people and allowing for promotion – based on merit attached to teaching activities, and suggested that I might need to ‘shop around’ to find an institution to suit me. This is true, in that I aware of departments more friendly to my aims and I sometimes meet people who are employed as Teaching Fellows or similar who talk of promotion possibilities linked to teaching achievements. However, the norm is still to hire a researcher who, begrudgingly, indifferently or happily, is required to teach as a secondary objective. This is what I was getting at with my job advert for the University of Excellence.

I should be clear that I am not against mathematical research in any way. It’s just that I am drawn to the challenge of helping people to understand something about mathematics and its applications, and I feel that people who are willing to spend their time and energy on better teaching, outreach, educational research, etc. should have a more prominent place in the system.

1. These are both programmes formally funded by HEFCE so really I was making an unfair swipe here. I hope it didn’t make me seem too much the disgruntled ex-employee but I was a little frustrated at the suggestion that the expiry of the funding for my employment should be viewed as an exciting new beginning.

Video interview show with the researchers behind the science & maths news

Samuel Hansen has started a new initiative. ACMEScience News Now offers video interviews with researchers involved in new science and mathematics research. In the first episode Samuel talks to Paul Hines of the University of Vermont about his research into using crowdsourcing to not only answer scientific questions, but also to help determine what those questions should be. This work was announced in a press release in mid-August and the video was released nine days later, so this is fast work offering access to researchers as they announce their research.

You can view the video below. Subscribe to the ACMEScience News Now YouTube channel for more.

Mathematics: a culture of historical inaccuracy?

Earlier this year, back when I somehow managed to find time to write blog posts (sorry!), I wrote a couple of pieces on incorrect but oft-repeated stories in history of mathematics, basically describing some issues and expressing my frustration. These were Apparently Gauss got in this bar fight with Hilbert… and Why do we enjoy maths history misconceptions?

Today Thony Christie wrote on Twitter (as @rmathematicus) with a link to this post by Dennis Des Chene (aka “Scaliger”): On bad anecdotes and good fun. As Thony points out, this is an “excellent piece of maths history myth busting” and I am writing this quick note to commend you to read it.

Duck Physics: review of an emerging field

Peter Rowlett*
* corresponding author

The emerging field of duck physics offers a theoretical exploration of the standard model of particle physics and its implications for ducks. This review takes a chronological approach and documents early developments of this exciting new discipline. The field of duck physics promises interesting results for ducks and has already started to develop results that have been reapplied to the standard model Higgs.

The 4th of July, a day previously of little significance, may now be celebrated as ‘Higgs day’. Many Americans marked the discovery with fireworks and it’s nice to see such celebration of science. The discovery led to an amusing (to me, anyway) exchange on Twitter. Old tweets get lost, and the hashtag we used is already gone from Twitter search, so I am recording the conversation here.

It all started with @C_J_Smith‘s assertion:

We have a Higgs!
— Calvin James Smith (@C_J_Smith) July 4, 2012

Pedantically, I pointed out:

or, rather, two teams have independently discovered a new particle which behaves like a Higgs ;) Looks like a duck, etc.
— Peter Rowlett (@peterrowlett) July 4, 2012

Of course Calvin knew this:

absolutely! We’ve a new boson – now to find out if it is a #Higgs (or a duck)!
— Calvin James Smith (@C_J_Smith) July 4, 2012

And this is when the fun started. A tweet from @MA1CAL started a new hashtag:

it is, however, unlikely to be a duck ;-) #vivaduckphysics
— MA1CAL (@MA1CAL) July 4, 2012

Being unfamiliar with duck physics, I asked the obvious question:

my physics is a little rusty; what does the standard model say about ducks? #vivaduckphysics
— Peter Rowlett (@peterrowlett) July 4, 2012

@MA1CAL revealed that vast possibilities were offered by this exciting new research area:

precious little – although there is a penguin process #vivaduckphysics
— MA1CAL (@MA1CAL) July 4, 2012

I called for further collaborators:

Further research needed re how ducks decay in GeV collisions #vivaduckphysics
— Peter Rowlett (@peterrowlett) July 4, 2012

In an example of multiple discovery (the usual way by which science progresses), one of the early key results in the field was developed independently by @lizmallard and @markdatko:

ducks are made of quacks?
— Liz Hanson (@lizmallard) July 4, 2012

one would expect decays to top quacks surely
— mark datko (@markdatko) July 4, 2012

@MA1CAL was optimistic about the potential:

this funding request is drafting itself! #vivaduckphysics
— MA1CAL (@MA1CAL) July 4, 2012

It is an important test of a new theory to see how well it fits with the predictions made by established models. An early result in duck physics, a hypothesis from @needmoreletters, had implications which challenged the standard model Higgs:

does the Higgs Boson weigh more than a duck, or have CERN detected a witch? #vivaduckphysics #notthatholygrail1
— alicia (@needmoreletters) July 4, 2012

Taking the only logical course of action, I suggested:

Burn it! #vivaduckphysics #notthatholygrail
— Peter Rowlett (@peterrowlett) July 4, 2012

I also enquired of our newest duck physicist:

@needmoreletters who are you, who are so wise in the ways of science? #vivaduckphysics
— Peter Rowlett (@peterrowlett) July 4, 2012

So where does duck physics go from here? The field has been fairly quiet recently but I presume the main practitioners are hard at work on new theories. I hope this review article will encourage other researchers to enter the field. The potential for impact is clear:

so what does it say that the most retweets I’ve ever got was a joke combining Higgs Boson & Monty Python?

— alicia (@needmoreletters) July 4, 2012

1. Despite @needmoreletters‘s assertion of a “bad joke“, given the context I regard #notthatholygrail as some pretty inspired hashtagging.

Bletchley Park Turing First Day Cover

For my recent birthday I was given a wonderful present: a special UK stamp commemorating Alan Turing, who was born 100 years ago today. The stamp was issued by the Royal Mail not for the Turing centenary but as one of a series of special stamp sets to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

This stamp is particularly special because it is one of 1000 which originated at the Bletchley Park Post Office that were stuck onto a specially designed envelope (Turing, mathematics and patterns) and cancelled on the day the stamp was issued, 23 February 2012, using a special Bombe-themed postmark.

Historical anniversaries: are they worth celebrating?

It probably hasn’t escaped your attention that this year marks 100 years since Alan Turing was born, and that the actual anniversary of his birth is tomorrow. There is massive interest in this fact, both from specialist maths and computing outlets and the mainstream press. What, though, is the significance? You don’t need me to tell you that any anniversary is fairly arbitrary. The earth has gone a whole number of times around the sun since the event (within some margin of error). What, really, does this mean? And attributing special interest to one particular number of anniversaries just because it is a factor of ten or a neat fraction of one hundred is wholly meaningless.

So I don’t fall for anything like that, right? Wrong. For a couple of years now I have been tweeting a link to a biography of a mathematician who was born or died on each date to the Twitter feed @mathshistory on behalf of the British Society for the History of Mathematics. This generates some interest and I am delighted when it does so.

So can I justify anniversaries as having some tremendous significance or is this all just a cynical attempt to grab attention? To a great extent it is the latter. BSHM have a charitable aim to “promote and develop for the public benefit, awareness, knowledge, study and teaching of the history of mathematics”. If anniversaries are going to generate greater awareness of and interest in history, then I’m in.

For the daily tweeting I rely entirely on the excellent MacTutor History of Mathematics archive (so much so that some people think I run the site, or MacTutor runs the Twitter feed).

Basically, I choose a mathematician who was born or died on each day according to a bunch of constraints. People sometimes tweet and say “why have you chosen X; what about Y?”

The basic ground rules are: one tweet per day, each mathematician once per year. This causes some conflicts that people don’t naturally understand. For example, on 23rd January I tweeted about James Lighthill, who MacTutor describes as “one of the foremost English applied mathematicians of his day”. Why, wondered Twitter user @gemmarobles, was I ignoring David Hilbert, also born that day? Well, I included Lighthill on his birthday because he died on the same day that Lexis was born, who MacTutor report as “initiating the study of time series”. And Lexis died on the day Galois was born. And although there are a few mathematicians who were born or died on 14th February, when Hilbert died, there is no clear issue with placing Hilbert on that day. So why did I choose Lighthill over Hilbert? Because Galois was born on the day Lexis died. At some point, an arbitrary decision needs to be made and this has consequences down the line.

Apart from these basic constraints, I have a bunch of extra rules. I am doing this to try to generate interest, so I try include some variety. I like to try to tweet from different eras and different mathematical areas on adjacent days if possible. I favour time periods when few dates are known or cultures without many mathematicians in the database because these have fewer opportunities to get picked. I also think it is good to highlight women in mathematics or other important issues such as race or disability, again if possible. It is also pleasing to make people aware of the mathematical contributions of mathematicians who are better known for something else, or people who were not principally mathematicians but made a contribution. Anyone who meets some of these criteria might see favour over other mathematicians associated with the same day.

Still, much as I like to include mathematicians that people won’t know and highlight time periods and issues they haven’t thought about, it is the big hitters, Euler and Gauss and other well known names, who get the large numbers of retweets and interest. So I include them because that is how followership of the account grows and links to maths history content spread. If people are only going to take an interest on a famous anniversary, at least they are taking an interest at all.

Do I think the world has gone over the top on Turing? I do think there is value to be had. Leveraging Turing’s name and the interest generated by his centenary to attempt to do some good for gay rights is a noble undertaking (although I have my doubts over the precise details). Using Turing to try to generate extra interest in the history of mathematics, cryptography and computing is worthwhile. If we aren’t going to get people’s attention at the big 100, when will we? I remember seeing a lecture by Robin Wilson where he lamented the relative lack of interest in the 300th anniversary of Euler’s birth in 2007, which could have been a great opportunity to raise the profile of mathematics in wider culture. It’s clear to see why the 305th anniversary this year just hasn’t got the same traction.

However, I worry about the others involved with the war work at Bletchley Park or the early development of computers who are getting eclipsed, and, for that matter, all the other history of maths and computing stories that are worth telling but can’t get the attention. Celebrating the big names supports the idea that advances are made in giant leaps by great men (mostly men), whereas history is constantly being made in small steps. On top of this, I worry that the attention people are giving Turing is fairly superficial. People aren’t, I think, gaining a wider understanding of the historical context into which Turing fits, or of the place of mathematics research in our culture. And I worry that this interest won’t be sustained. What happens in the cold light of Sunday morning when it’s all over? Perhaps we can sustain some interest until the end of the centenary year but will ‘Turing100’ have a lasting impact on people’s minds? Turing died in 1954. Will we ignore him again until 2054?

Anyway, must dash. I have to draft my exciting Turing centenary day post for tomorrow.

One half of one percent of your time

If I gave you 200 tokens representing your available time this week, would you spend one of them on listening to the Math/Maths Podcast?

John Read tweeted, on the occasion of our 100th episode/2nd birthday of Math/Maths, that:

to hear all 100 of them within 2 years ≈ 0.6% of the time listening.
@johndavidread on Twitter.

This is an interesting thought, though a crude calculation based on 100 hours divided into two years.

According to an audio player I just loaded all 100 mp3 files into, the combined length of Math/Maths Podcast episodes to date is 3 days 14 hours 51 minutes. This is 3.619 days (or 86.85 hours, if you prefer).

I asked Wolfram Alpha for the number of days from 7 June 2010 (episode 1) to 9 June 2012 (episode 100): 733 days.

That means that if you listened to episode 1 and episode 100 when they were released, and all other 98 episodes in between, then you spent about 0.4937% of your time listening to us.

If you discovered us later and listened to each episode released since, then you can guess that you spent an approximately similar proportion since the episode lengths haven’t changed markedly. If you discovered us later and went back through the back catalogue, of course, the proportion of your time you have spent on the Math/Maths Podcast since you started listening is even greater.

So if you’re a regular listener then we can say that you spend nearly one half of one percent of your time listening to Samuel and I ramble on about mathematics news. (Equivalently, nearly one half of one percent of my time is spent talking to Samuel!)

Depressing thought, eh?

(P.S. Of course, we’re nothing special. Anything that you do every week that takes one hour is consuming 0.6% of your available time. It shouldn’t be, but somehow seeing it spelled out like this seems surprising. I hope we’re worth it!)

(P.P.S. my time token analogy at the start of this post doesn’t work, of course, if you do anything else at all while listening. Shhh!)