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Relatively Prime Recap: Season 2, Episode 5: Other Duties As Assigned

Relatively Prime: Other Duties As Assigned

For about 40 minutes of this week’s episode of Relatively Prime (Number 5 of 8, already? Good heavens!), Samuel Hansen looks like he’s managed to escape from his shameful, borderline criminal, past in Las Vegas. But he’s pulled back in for one last job, which is a debacle, of course.

So, we start the second half of the season with a few non-mathematicians calling in to explain what mathematicians do all day: wear down enormous pencils, furrow brows, pick theorems off of the conveyor, and miaow. This isn’t all that far off of what I do, come to think of it. A strong opening, neatly setting the scene and asking the question the rest of the show is to answer.

The first interviewee is Professor Anna Haensch of Duquesne1 University in Pittsburgh, co-host of The Other Half podcast, who gives a description of the life of an academic. I only lasted a few years in academia, but it sounds like a pleasant enough job if (like Haensch) you’re cut out for it. She seems incredibly organised, and balances the various strands of her job in a way I’m slightly envious of.

Contrast that to the second interviewee, Kristin Lauter, Principal Researcher and Research Manager for the Cryptography Group at Microsoft Research. Lauter seems to be attempting to spin more plates than can physically be spun, rattling from meeting to conference to interview, managing interns and employees, overrunning, missing emails… oh, and running an important national organisation while shipping five to ten papers a year. That sounded like a stressful routine.

Two good interviews: Samuel stayed discreetly out of the way and jumped in only when needed (he could easily have edited out one of these moments, but I thought the comedy of it justified leaving it in.)

And then… a revival of Combinations & Permutations, even though (according to the blurb) no-one asked for it. I’m pulling that face, you know the one. The one where I don’t want to sound over-critical, but know I’m at best going to damn with faint praise. A discussion with C&P regulars Nathan Rowe, Brandon Metz and Sean Breckling, apparently contemporaries of Samuel’s at grad school he’s slightly lost touch with over the last few years.

In principle (there goes that face again) it’s a good idea: catch up with three early-career mathematicians with something in common and see where they’ve wound up. In practice, it descends into four buddies interrupting each other in gales of laughter about in-jokes.

It’s a pity, because what they’re up to is pretty interesting, from slot machine design to X-ray scanning; it’s just hard to separate the low-down from the high-jinks. As a rule of thumb, if you feel it necessary to apologise to previous guests for the segment to come, it might be worth considering whether it’s up to par.

Overall, a bit of a mixed bag that started with great promise but dropped away sharply for me.

More information

Listen to Relatively Prime: Other Duties As Assigned at While you’re there, catch up on Season 1.

Colin was given early access to Season 2 of Relatively Prime, in return for writing reviews of each episode. Furthermore, Samuel is Aperiodipal numero uno and most of us chipped some money into the Relatively Prime Kickstarter, too. Just so you know.

  1. pronounced du-KAYN, and spelt at random []

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