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Thursday, December 10, 2015

Laysplaining, Mathsplaining, and Weeds...


When I wrote my Master's thesis a few eons ago, for fun I slipped in a few casual, informal bits... which my adviser saw and asked, "You weren't planning to leave that in the final draft were you?" To which I responded, "Well, actually, yes; you know, just trying for a little levity and less stodginess." And he said, "You can't do that." Needless to say, the final version reverted to academese.

I was reminded of that long-ago episode after Jordan Ellenberg tweeted out a link this week to the below math thesis which describes itself as "a fascinating tale of mayhem, mystery, and mathematics." It's been buzzing around the intertubes ever since, and may just become THE most viewed math dissertation in history!:
 https://twitter.com/JSEllenberg/status/674245895580426241

It hails from Princeton graduate Piper Harron, and the original (more academic) version of the material was posted on arXiv a couple years back:
http://arxiv.org/abs/1309.2025

There's already been a lot of commentary about the dissertation on the Web. Among my favorite remarks was this:
"I don't know enough about higher math to evaluate her work, but I can tell she's absolutely brilliant. Because you have to be brilliant to get away with that amount of sheer attitude."
Indeed, I've also seen some quite negative commentary... emanating from folks I suspect are lacking in appreciation for humor, creativity, and certain attitude! (there's no real reason that math, even pure math, can't include those).

The actual mathematics involved may weight you down, so try to stay focused on the larger storyline/ideas Piper is conveying. A few lines from the "Prologue" to get you started:
"Respected research math is dominated by men of a certain attitude. Even allowing for individual variation, there is still a tendency towards an oppressive atmosphere, which is carefully maintained and even championed by those who find it conducive to success... My thesis is, in many ways, not very serious, sometimes sarcastic, brutally honest, and very me. It is my art. It is myself. It is also as mathematically complete as I could honestly make it...
"It is not my place to make the system comfortable with itself. This may be challenging for happy mathematicians to read through; my only hope is that the challenge is accepted."
...and perhaps then too, keep in mind the old saying, "Attitude is everything!" ;-)


ADDENDUM:  the inimitable Mathbabe (Cathy O'Neil) now has a guest post up from Piper herself further explaining her "thesis grenade":
http://mathbabe.org/2015/12/11/piper-harron-discusses-her-artistic-and-wonderful-math-ph-d-thesis/


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