How accurate is the Hollywood stereotype of what mathematicians do?
August 9, 2021 9:51 AM   Subscribe

Does each mathematician get assigned one (1) blackboard in an empty school room on which to scribble your life's work, muttering cryptic genius mumbles day in and day out?

I'm writing a story about someone who quite idolizes mathematicians - believes in the Hollywood stereotype of what a mathematician does all day long - and then is confronted with the reality of an average mathematician who might be ... rather different? slightly more boring? allergic to chalk dust? I'd love to set up and then subsequently dash as many of my character's expectations of a mathematician as possible. It's going to be funny. I hope!

But I'm realizing I don't know much about what a regular (not genius professor) mathematician might do all day long. What kind of jobs do you have? What is your work life like? Do you hang out with other mathematicians? What do you talk about when you do?

I'd love to hear your real life anecdotes or any websites/articles/profiles/books you want to recommend that would give me some insight into IRL mathematical work.

Thank you!!
posted by MiraK to Work & Money (30 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
Best answer: My immediate post college friend group was math nerd heavy. Folks were over at my apartment playing board games one night, and we grabbed Pass the Pigs for a light finisher. This quickly turned from a fun game into "we need more paper" and "do you have a pencil sharpener" because they decided it would be more fun to run a monte carlo sim on the various pig positions, an exercise which took the remainder of the evening.

This wasn't even a particularly special or unusual event, it's just the one I remember best because I actually know what a monte carlo simulation is.
posted by phunniemee at 10:09 AM on August 9 [19 favorites]


Best answer: I hung out with a bunch of math grad students for a while when I was in college. They just did normal people things!

The ones I knew did things like juggle and ride bikes and eat food and do photography and not know how to swim and play musical instruments and win at board games and listen to music and read books and go to concerts and hang out with friends and date people and watch tv and movies and drink too much alcohol and be particular about their coffee roasters and have insomnia and run and jog and have pets and roommates and gardens and kids and have extremely messy homes and have extremely tidy homes and volunteer in their community and TA classes and go to potlucks and use metafilter as their home page and stuff.

Also they were pretty much all willing to explain mathy things to me, which was a lot of fun.

They got recruited at by tech companies and the US military. I can think of 3 who are teaching math and one who teaches computers to recognize bird song or something.
posted by aniola at 10:26 AM on August 9 [2 favorites]


Best answer: I worked for a math journal with a lot of editors who were mathematicians. They spent their days reading math papers and assessing them and answering questions from non-mathematician staff. Their personalities were as varied as anyone's, reflecting all kinds of different non-math interests, from gardening to the Marx Brothers. Some of them were very kind and great to work with - others not so much. I once used the phrase "a couple" to mean a larger amount than two and was immediately corrected. The author of the memoir Codeine Diary worked at the same journal, and part of that memoir goes more into the day-to-day life of the people who worked there, both the mathematicians and the rest of the staff.

I would expect working as a math editor to be one of the more boring versions of being a mathematician. Very few of the mathematicians I worked with were still publishing their own research.
posted by FencingGal at 10:27 AM on August 9 [2 favorites]


I've had several actual (published in legit journal) mathamations recall that when this film came out they called around astounded that Jill Clayburgh in this scene got the Snake Lemma just right.

Search through /r/math, there's a lot of chat about what math folk actually do by actual math folk.
posted by sammyo at 10:29 AM on August 9 [1 favorite]


allergic to chalk dust?

Re: blackboards - very rare now, all replaced with whiteboards. If the allergy was contemporary, it would be to Expo dry-erase marker fumes.
posted by Rash at 10:32 AM on August 9 [7 favorites]


Oh - I was working at the math journal when Ted Kaczynski was revealed to be the Unabomber. I remember one of the mathematicians being shocked that a mathematician could do such a thing.
posted by FencingGal at 10:42 AM on August 9 [2 favorites]


Best answer: The people I know with math phds like to tease each other about applied versus theoretical tracks, and why their chosen branch is superior. Other than that, they’re all basically normal people with families and hobbies (ranging from fine art to making music to playing video games to traveling to driving sports cars). They all use computers and run models for their day jobs, and they all tend to have other math friends, mainly because grad school friends can be as long lasting and important as college friends. If you passed by them on the street, you’d probably have no idea that they’re math people.
posted by umwhat at 11:05 AM on August 9 [3 favorites]


Best answer: To clarify, do you want to hear from people with math PhDs employed strictly as mathematicians (which basically means academia and the national security establishment) or people with math PhDs generally?

Re: blackboards - very rare now, all replaced with whiteboards. If the allergy was contemporary, it would be to Expo dry-erase marker fumes.

My experience was that departments often go to some effort to keep chalkboards. Where I was a grad student it had a nice side effect that other departments didn't want to teach in our building so we had little contention for classrooms.
posted by hoyland at 11:15 AM on August 9 [4 favorites]


Best answer: The people I know with math phds like to tease each other about applied versus theoretical tracks

Yes! And then there was the statistics floor.
posted by aniola at 11:18 AM on August 9 [4 favorites]


Best answer: Not a mathematician, but have done graduate work in mathematics. If you're collaborating, then a blackboard or whiteboard is very helpful for sketching out in mathematical notation (just like in the movies) because maths is difficult to just talk through.

Otherwise, my experience was that they were/are geek-y normal. More juggling and board games aficionados than the general public but not absurdly so.
posted by plonkee at 11:44 AM on August 9 [1 favorite]


Best answer: In re: black/whiteboards: a friend of mine worked in admin in the math department at my university. Apparently they had a hard time keeping cleaning staff around because they’re the only place on campus with blackboards. They’d all transfer to other buildings to avoid cleaning them.
posted by tchemgrrl at 12:26 PM on August 9 [1 favorite]


Best answer: Mathematicians are, on the whole, way more social than you'd expect. Because academia can entail moving cross-country often, conferences tend to be places where you're seeing old friends in person for the first time in a while, and there's usually a lot of drinking & going out to eat after the official conference activities are done. This may or may not include lots of math or at least math-related discussion, but is just as likely to be everyone catching each other up on their lives (kids, pets, new hobbies,etc) since the last time they got to hang out. Mathematicians also really tend to like board games in my experience so usually a game will come out at some point.

On the more day to day / work life side, most academic math jobs involve teaching, so we're spending a lot of time grading, meeting with students, and planning. While some parts of research can be "work alone on a chalkboard" most math research is surprisingly (at least to people outside the field) collaborative and involves lots of emails/messaging back and forth, keeping up with new related papers on the ArXiV, and asking colleagues questions.
posted by augustimagination at 12:48 PM on August 9 [3 favorites]


Best answer: Re: blackboards - very rare now, all replaced with whiteboards. If the allergy was contemporary, it would be to Expo dry-erase marker fumes.

Yes, just nthing that in the two universities I'm most familiar with, they STEM buildings have fought hard to keep their chalkboards. Like, they just did a bunch of renovations and replaced all the blackboards with...new blackboards.
posted by litera scripta manet at 1:11 PM on August 9 [3 favorites]


Best answer: I finished my math PhD 20 years ago and the University of Michigan and haven't really been back. At the time they were successfully resisting whiteboards. I got the impression from old grad school friends that this was still going on.

So, don't write off muttering at chalk boards. Chalk boards are fun! You can stand up and pace around while you think. You and a colleague can work on the same surface and see each other's stuff. (That might be something Hollywood tends to miss--mathematicians collaborate.)

In theory whiteboards seem like a fine substitute, in practice I always have problems with uneraseable marks and dried-out pens. (Have I just had back luck with whiteboards?)

There aren't any real digital substitutes either. Though of course these days mathematicians spend a lot of time at their computers writing documents and email, like everyone else.
posted by bfields at 1:34 PM on August 9 [1 favorite]


Best answer: I’m a mathematician in academia married to another mathematician. My institute transitioned to white boards, but my spouse’s is holding onto chalkboards for dear life. I am allergic to chalk dust, and love my whiteboard (I do have a big one in my office, but I use it with other people only. On my own I just use lots of paper and pencils).

Mathematicians care a lot about chalk quality as well (I think there was at least one fpp on the good chalk shortage). I care way more about my whiteboard markers than my non-mathematician colleagues.

I have a shared office, but yeah, it’s big and has a lot of books and the whiteboard.

We talk about math a lot at home - our kids are pretty much math lovers too. We have a lot of mathematician friends, but mostly because we socialized a lot in grad school, so that’s where we got our friends. I did pure math, spouse is applied, so there’s a lot of friendly teasing.

Our non-academic friends are all data scientists now.
posted by Valancy Rachel at 2:07 PM on August 9 [4 favorites]


Best answer: You could listen to The Numberphile Podcast - YouTube. There are a bunch of interviews with mathematicians about the past and present.
posted by zengargoyle at 2:49 PM on August 9 [1 favorite]


Response by poster: I'm so sorry, you all, I really don't mean to disparage any of the stereotypes. To tell you the truth I'm myself in awe of mathematicians a little bit, having been raised as a South Indian upper caste person (trust me, this is a Thing with my people, I grew up hearing the names of famous mathematicians like they were rock stars).

So when I say I want to poke fun at chalkboards and mutterings, I'm definitely speaking from an affectionate and awestruck place, and the intent is gentle humor (and underneath, the goal is really to shed my childhood awe of this rarefied sect of magicians and replace it with realistic appreciation).

It seems like rather than setting up and then knocking down presumptions in my story, I might need to set em up and *confirm* at least a few of them! Which thrills me more than I can tell you!!

So if I could slightly reword my question, I'd ask you:

1. What are some lay people's notions about mathematicians that are hilariously untrue OR hilariously true?

2. What are some resources - books, articles, subreddits, other forums - where I might find real life anecdotes about life in mathematics?

3. Bonus question which I forgot to ask in the post: what might be an area of study or specialization in mathematics that's considered ordinary or uncool by mathematicians (but people with my upbringing would obviously treat you like rock stars regardless ;) )?
posted by MiraK at 3:23 PM on August 9 [1 favorite]


The Fields institute in Toronto literally had chalkboards in the BATHROOMS when it opened. Don’t know if they are still there or not but it was one of the features they bragged about on opening.
posted by five_cents at 4:28 PM on August 9 [1 favorite]


Best answer: A boring but characteristic thing mathematicians do is to obsess over frequent-flyer schemes and favorite airports. Most mathematicians live far from where they grew up, and active researchers often spend a lot of time visiting colleagues and going to conferences, so they spend a lot of time in airports and develop opinions: I could give you a twenty-minute disquisition on what to do in ORD if you have an unexpected eight-hour layover, and I'm far from unique in this respect.

Pure mathematicians are often snobby about applied mathematics, which might seem odd to an outsider, since applied math is a lot more lucrative and "real-world" problems aren't exactly easy. Pure mathematicians are obsessed with typesetting in LaTeX; applied mathematicians, by and large, do not care.

If you want to MeMail me, I'd be happy to chat about some more arcane rivalries.
posted by yarntheory at 5:04 PM on August 9 [3 favorites]


Best answer: Okay, this is maybe a little tangential, but I work in STEM (although not in math) at a university, and there are several people in the math department (and my impression is that it's a widespread thing) are OBSESSED with a particular type of chalk. There was a mefi FPP about it. It seems to be a Thing.

I tried the chalk once, and I have to say, it really was worth being obsessed about.

Oh and I found the FPP! Which does specifically mention mathematicians being obsessed with it.
posted by litera scripta manet at 5:12 PM on August 9


Problems for children from 5 to 15 (PDF).

Math Problems for children from 5 to 15 (2004) [pdf] | Hacker News (thread).

Math problems that a Russian mathematician thought would be good questions for young math students.
posted by zengargoyle at 5:12 PM on August 9 [1 favorite]


Best answer: Mathematician here.

1. What are some lay people's notions about mathematicians that are hilariously untrue OR hilariously true?

1a. That we are extremely good at arithmetic. I think it's fair to say that the median mathematician is faster at mental calculation than the median person -- but it's not typical to be a lightning calculator, and it is common for us to make mistakes.

1b. That we are more prone to mental illness or subclinical psychic distress than most people because of our time spent in abstract conceptual realms.


2. What are some resources - books, articles, subreddits, other forums - where I might find real life anecdotes about life in mathematics?



2a. The Mathematical Experience by Davis and Hersh is good, though by now somewhat old-fashioned. Littlewood's Miscellany is very funny but even more old-fashioned.

2b. Any current issue of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society will give you a sense of how mathematicians talk to each other about their professional lives in 2021; a typical issue, besides a few expository math articles, will have reminiscences about recently deceased mathematicians, career advice for people starting out, news about developments in the profession, etc.

2c. I wrote a profile of John Urschel a few years ago in which, among other things, I tried to talk to a non-mathematical audience about what mathematicians were like and the story of one person becoming one.

3. Bonus question which I forgot to ask in the post: what might be an area of study or specialization in mathematics that's considered ordinary or uncool by mathematicians (but people with my upbringing would obviously treat you like rock stars regardless ;) )?

I'm not sure I understand this question, but I would say that subjects like "chaos" -- not even to mention "quantum chaos," which is kind of different -- probably sound very rock-starry to the outside world but are just regular old math things you can work on. I don't think we think of any field of math as ordinary and uncool -- we think of math as ordinary and cool! That's why we do it!
posted by escabeche at 6:23 PM on August 9 [4 favorites]


Best answer: The book Bluff Your Way In Mathematics by Robert Ainsley is a humorous guide to how to fake math expertise, pick up the prejudices of mathematical specialists, and generally pretend to be a mathematician. Example from p. 38:
GRAD TYPES

You'll be expected to be something of a professional mathematician in grad school, and you should choose your image accordingly. There are three sharply defined groups of university mathematicians, which we will number 0, 1, and ∞. (The numbers 2 and 3 don't, of course, exist in high-level mathematics.)

Type 0

You're either very short or very tall with greasy hair. The only evidence for your existence is a huge list of books checked out of the library in your name and a stream of Bach playing in your room on a Sunday morning.
OK, I'm tired of typing, go find the book yourself
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 7:34 PM on August 9 [2 favorites]


Best answer: And to help with your last question, here's Ainsley on p. 47, from his list of convincing-sounding things you can say about various fields of math:
Solid Mechanics

Be disparaging about solid mechanics. It's neither interesting nor important. Say it's just a heap of vibrating plates and dismiss it contemptuously as being mere engineering ("and look what happened to the San Francisco Bay Bridge," you can declare). Remember, a mathematician holds an engineer in roughly the same esteem as a lemming; both jump to unfortunate conclusions.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 7:39 PM on August 9 [1 favorite]


it is common for us to make mistakes.

See the (possibly untrue) origins of Grothendieck Primes. On the other end of that spectrum is the story of taxicab numbers.
posted by axiom at 8:19 PM on August 9


I've always thought that The man who loved only numbers, a biography of Paul Erdös by Paul Hoffman, was a good window into what it's like to be a working mathematician. There's also I want to be a mathematician, the autobiography of Paul Halmos that tells the story of his career as a mathematician.
posted by jomato at 10:37 PM on August 9


1a. That we are extremely good at arithmetic.
The real analysis final was the last exam of the year for me and several others in my cohort, so we went out to brunch to celebrate. It was my third exam of the week and I had been up studying half the night, and I'm sure I wasn't the only one. My non-mathematician wife joined us at the restaurant, and when the check came we handed it to her to compute the tip and figure out who owed what. There was no discussion, just a collective "nope" from the slaphappy first-years.
posted by jomato at 10:50 PM on August 9 [1 favorite]


One more - Timothy Gowers blog (Fields medallist Cambridge mathematician). There's a good range of topics on here about teaching, publishing articles and books, and general stuff he's interested in.
This is a good piece about Cambridge maths undergrad.
posted by crocomancer at 4:04 AM on August 10


The man who loved only numbers, a biography of Paul Erdös by Paul Hoffman, was a good window into what it's like to be a working mathematician.

Well, yes and no. It captures the collaborative aspects well and the almost religious fervor which pervades the field (I explain to people that think mathematicians and scientists have the same worldview that mathematicians are usually idealists/Platonists and scientists are usually empiricists/Aristotelians), but Erdős's own lifestyle and personality were, to say the least, atypical (the book does reflect that by contrasting Erdős with the peers whose lives he breezed into with regularity, but even so it's easy to read the book and take its subject as normative).
posted by jackbishop at 5:25 AM on August 10 [2 favorites]


I love the quite wonderful documentary movie Fermat's Last Theorem, by Simon Singh and John Lynch. It tells the story of professional mathematician Andrew Wiles' journey to solving what was credibly the world's most famous open problem at the time. The joy of collaboration among mathematicians, and the calm life-long rhythm of the work both make an appearance. The presentation is honest and true in a way that made me nostalgic for the period of my life when I worked more closely with research mathematicians.
posted by gmarceau at 5:25 PM on August 10 [1 favorite]


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