When the mathematicians meet…

What’s the difference between an introverted mathematician and an extroverted mathematician? The extrovert looks at the other person’s shoes. You probably have heard this joke (very funny) many times and might believe that mathematicians work stuck in their offices (and their own heads). It was probably true a couple of centuries ago. However, things have changed after the rapid development of maths, especially applied maths. Why?

Nowadays we have to specialise, at least a little bit. We don’t have Da Vinci’s any more; it’s just impossible to fully understand more than your very narrow area. But while mathematics research narrows more and more, it tries to tackle more and more complex and multidisciplinary problems. What do we do now?!

We, as mathematicians, must get out of our comfort zones and collaborate. We need to accept our lack of understanding of certain aspects of each maths problem while, at the same time, being aware of how we can contribute to the solution. We have to identify what kind of experts we need to ask for help to make some progress. This is how it all begins.

When I started my adventure in maths, I certainly didn’t anticipate this. I was prepared for working alone and talking to colleagues only in my free time. While it could possibly work in pure maths, I would totally fail to succeed in applied fields if I tried to do so.

Examples? Mathematics of Planet Earth Centre for Doctoral Training! Yes, we pursue our individual degrees and work on our own projects. However, we operate as a cohort too. Sharing experience, tips and asking for help are essential for this programme to exist. I can’t even count how many times computer science experts saved my life (or at least my precious laptop) by preventing me from running a code that would destroy the system1 . In exchange I could give them a hand when they got lost in abstract multidimensional spaces (although I don’t claim I can visualise anything in more than three dimensions, though it disappoints my first year lecturer!). We all learn from one another.

Recently I realised that it’s not just a fake academic set-up, this is how the “real world mathematics“ works. I spent 5 days at the 116th European Study Group with Industry in Durham, UK (http://www.esgi.org.uk/). This event brought together about hundred mathematicians, physicists and industrial partners. The latter proposed eight problems they wanted to solve in fields as diverse as agriculture, banking and sepsis diagnosis. We divided ourselves into groups according to our interests — I chose the problem proposed by a digital bank. They needed help with marketing their product to the best target audience (of course the ultimate goal was to spend less and earn more). We sat down in a room and…well, and started thinking, talking, brainstorming and arguing. Within 3 days we managed to produce whole models and get some useful results for the industrial partners. Something infeasible for one genius became a reality for a group of people with different backgrounds.

Yes, you might still meet a mathematician staring at her/his own shoes while talking (or avoiding any contact) to you. But this is not a norm anymore. And definitely not the only way to succeed. We can tackle real world problems together because together impossible becomes possible!

  1. Note, not everyone is as lucky as me, you can read what happens when you’re not careful while programming here.

Not “too silly”, not “too girlish” for maths

– “What do you study?”
– “I’m doing PhD in maths.”
– “Wow, you must be so smart! And you’re a girl!”

I hear it so often. I’ve done a small amount of research and my results are sad: my friends studying linguistics, architecture,medicine and so on don’t get such a routine reaction. Why is it the case? Where does the assumption that a mathematician must be smarter than the rest of the society come from? And why are we still surprised that women are capable of pursuing this career path?

I had thought the same before I decided to study mathematics. It shouldn’t be surprising. As a ten-year-old I fell in love with John Nash (or rather Russell Crowe starring in A Beautiful Mind). Than I laughed at how nerdy and out of touch with life the characters of The Big Bang Theory were. Media portrayal of mathematicians didn’t make my decision to study maths easy. Would I become like them? Would I spend my adulthood bending over equations, unable to engage in social life and relationships?

Moreover, I was afraid that I wasn’t smart enough, that one needs a brain of Gauss or Newton to be a mathematician. But I took up the challenge and… I’m still here! Even though my IQ isn’t high enough to join Mensa. Even though I’m a GIRL!

Einstein nailed it: Genius is 1% talent and 99% percent hard work.During my undergraduate studies I’ve seen apparent geniuses being expelled from the university because talent and intelligence aren’t enough. Nobody is born with maths knowledge, it takes years of hard work to gain enough experience  experience to earn a diploma.

I believe that talent is helpful but what counts most is your interest in whatever you’re doing and determination to work hard. Although if you truly enjoy maths, the work might be turn in to fun, as crazy as that sounds. I’m not claiming that I loved every evening spent going through some complicated proofs (especially the ones beginning with the words “It’s obvious that…” – maybe it’s obvious for you, author, but it isn’t for me!). But some problems and ideas were really my thing. I even kept reading about them after the exam!

Ok, but what about the girl part? Is mathematician really a job just for men? Does the gender matter at all? Personally, I get very annoyed when someone admires me for studying maths despite being a female. There’s no correlation between the excellence in mathematical subjects and gender. Neither positive nor negative – I don’t agree with the common statement that girls are more hard-working so they get better results than “smart but lazy” boys.

Unfortunately not everyone agrees. Last year I went to my first mathematical conference. The organiser (male) came to me the day before my talk just to say something along the lines of: You don’t need to worry about your talk. You’re a women, you can’t be as good in mathematics as your male colleagues so nobody expects you to give a good talk. I was shocked! I did well because my research was of good quality, not because of or despite the fact that I’m a woman.

To sum up, if you feel that you like maths (or some parts of it) but are afraid of pursuing the degree because you’re not a genius or (even worse!) you’re a girl, don’t hesitate to give it a try! You have every chance of success and you don’t want to regret not having done something you really wanted. It’s far better to regret something you’ve done!

If you’re interested in articles about the need (or lack of need) for extraordinary mind to do mathematics, take a look at: