Sunday, May 19, 2019

Al Jean…. D'OH!!

I’ve done 5 Sunday ‘profiles’ here of fairly well-known Web folks and wanted to go with something different for the next profile. So I found a mathematician who’s name might not be that familiar to many of you, even though his work likely is familiar.  If the name “Al Jean” doesn't ring a bell then how about the name “Homer Simpson”? Read on….

Al Jean was born in Michigan on January 9, 1961 (before the water there could mess with his brain... uhh, too much), making him over 8 in shaggy dog years. He shares a birthday with Richard Nixon and was born exactly 20 years after Joan Baez (you do all remember Joan Baez, don’t you?… the folk-singing daughter of the uncle of mathematician John Carlos Baez, who writes the blog Azimuth, and who, just to complete the circle, was also born in 1961, as was Barack Obama and Heather Locklear... so much for astrology).
Al’s full name is Alfred Ernest Jean III (not even a hint of comedic ring to THAT), and he has two children, Bart and Lisa… no, no, I have no idea what his children’s names are… but according to the last survey I could find (2018) the greatest probability, believe it or not, would be Liam and Emma (Bob and Mary having faded completely out-of-style, along with Beanie Babies).

In 1977 (while I was probably bussing tables somewhere), Jean tied for 3rd place in the Michigan Mathlete competition. He was a nerd from early on; indeed nerdy enough to go to Harvard at the age of 16 and graduate in 1981 with his BS in mathematics, at which point he apparently asked himself the question, “When will I ever use this stuff?” And his answer was, well, a little different from most…

It was also at Harvard that, with Mike Reiss, Jean honed his comedy chops working at the Harvard Lampoon. Then through the 80’s, instead of math jobs, he wrote comedy for a number of TV shows (including for Johnny Carson and Gary Shandling) before landing a job with an animated sitcom called “The Simpsons” in 1989 — a show not expected to last long that was merely destined to become America’s longest-running weekly TV series ever, D'OH!; yes, even longer than "Married With Children" (who knew!) — in the time since our nation has watched the Republican Party go from George H. W. Bush as President to deranged Donald Trump, the Simpsons have been gracing American living rooms (on the Faux Channel, er, I mean, Fox Channel) — now I’m not sayin’ the Simpsons had anything to do with that evolution (or degeneration) of the GOP, but still, there just might be a PhD. thesis for someone willing to investigate it further.
Anyway, The Simpsons are celebrating their 30th anniversary this year (way more than any current married couples will ever experience, although some car owners with Volvos may be able to relate), and Jean still works there. He says that what he loves about it is that, though it is a comedy show, it has “depth and warmth.” And heaven knows, mathematicians need as much depth and warmth as they can muster (as perhaps Doron Zeilberger would attest to?).

In the third season of The Simpsons Jean and buddy Mike Reiss were promoted to Executive Producers of the show and as Simon Singh put it they would “parachute their own mathematical jokes into episodes," as exemplified here:

And also on YouTube, "Mathologer" has done several videos on math bits in the Simpsons:

In fairness I should note that several of the Simpsons’ writers have strong math backgrounds, and I only picked out Jean because he had been with the Simpsons off-and-on since the beginning and has an actual mathematics degree. Some of the other writers possess mere physics degrees, and for all I know may even believe in the multiverse, LOL (may Karl Popper have mercy on their souls). With all that said, Sean Carroll has yet to write even a single episode of The Simpsons, apparently preferring to put his material on physics ArXiv. Go figure! (By the way, Stephen Hawking, having made multiple appearances on it, once called The Simpsons "the best thing on American television" -- of course, I s'pose some might say that restricting it to 'American television' is setting a low bar).

Jean has received eight Emmy Awards and one Peabody Award for his work on The Simpsons (several of them well-deserved), more, I'm pretty certain, than Pee Wee Herman ever got for Pee Wee’s Playhouse.

Jean says that the Simpsons’ character he most relates to is Lisa, no doubt due to her rational, insightful, scientific mind… or, perhaps it’s just a simple case of gender dysphoria.
Anyway, I think Al’s career is itself a good response for whenever that pesky, sugar-infused 8th grader, with head cocked and eyes rolling, indeed asks, in Bart Simpson overtones, “But hey, WHEN will I ever use this stuff?” and you can then reply to the li’l ungrateful, hormone-awash twerp that he/she/they just might use it when they’re a head writer for the longest running, gosh-darn TV sitcom in the history of the Milky Way galaxy (or even the second longest)… or, you might alternatively use it when you’re figuring out how to fly a drone over the Principal’s house and capture some compromising photographs of he and Secretary Sweeney on their lunch hour… or, when you’re trying to scam the elderly, like your grandparents, over your smartphone, out of their entire life savings… there are just SO MANY lovely, practical day-to-day creative uses of mathematics (and we haven't even gotten yet to suppressing the vote in key electoral states/districts -- Republicans will pay you a pretty penny up front for that).

In any event, if you’ve never read Simon Singh’s book about math in the Simpsons it’s one of the most entertaining popular math reads of the last several years. It’s a little slice of nerd heaven, so check it out... at least it should hold you over while you're waiting for someone to explain, in English, Mochizuki's proof of the ABC conjecture.

Al has a Twitter account at @AlJean where you can join his other almost 40,000 6th-grade-level followers. I think Taylor Swift’s cat may have more followers than that, but it is waaaaay more than Donald Trump has if you eliminate all the phony Russian bots following him, and the real PGA members ("Pussy-Grabbers Anonymous") that revere him.

Almost a dozen years ago, when the Simpsons had only been around a mere 18 years, Jean was a guest on NPR's "Fresh Air" here:

...and here's another fine interview with him from a different site around the same time period:

So hey kiddies just keep in mind that demand for mathematicians in the future is expected to soar; it's one of the very best fields to enter these days, with so many areas requiring your talents: actuary, economist, cryptographer, financial planner, operations research analyst, statistician, investment analyst, insurance adjuster, programmer, data analyst/scientist, market researcher, engineer, teacher... AND, of course, comedy writer!!
So when you're sending out those applications to MIT, Harvard, Berkeley, and Pomona College, you may want to also be dropping notes to Seth Myers, Jimmy Fallon, Saturday Night Live, and Phyllis Diller's heirs (because eventually you're gonna have to pay all those student loans back!). Just saying....

Anyway, here's hoping The Simpsons are on for another 30 years, because my conjecture is that so long as Bart Simpson doesn't grow up, well then, neither shall I. D'OH!!

Prior Sunday profiles have been of: 


Friday, May 17, 2019

Chi-i-i-i-i-i-ll Friday *

[ *  "Chill Friday" is Math-Frolic's meditative musical diversion, heading into each weekend]

(...will there be another Sunday "profile" this weekend?... why yes, there will be, though I feel safe defying anyone to guess of who)

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Cathy O’Neil… Big Data Meets Its Match

For all the mathematician-profile fans, time for another Math-Frolic-generated portrait!
After 3 male and one female Sunday “profiles,” perhaps time to focus on another female. Thus, today's drum-r-r-r-r-r-roll for…. Cathy O’Neil.
Cathy’s not just a mathematician though, she’s an observer/commentator/ranter of first order on all worldly things. Hopefully, she needs little introduction for most of you, but still we’ll start at the beginning.

Cathy was born on July 13th sometime in the 20th century (I couldn’t find the actual year… females are so good at hiding such details). That makes her a Cancer, or in her case really more of a Can-do person!  She told a few more details of her early math life back when I interviewed her in 2014 (like how she decided in the summer of her 15th year to become a math professor instead of a pianist):
Now she is 5 years richer, famous-er, and well-travelled (her ultimate pro-guide to travel, by the way, is HERE)!

Her adult-like life began with attendance at Berkeley perhaps in the early 90s… and perhaps accounting for her leftward leanings (…or maybe she attended Maoist summer boot camps, the records for which have been expunged). She followed Berkeley up with a PhD. from Harvard in 1999, where her advisor was Barry Mazur, no slouch of a mathematician himself. She taught for awhile but left academia in 2007 to go work as a quant in the private finance industry (raising the question of why do kids growing up wanna be policemen, and firemen, and doctors, but never "quants"?). Anyway, she was there just in time to witness George Bush & Friends nearly bring down the entire world economy in 2008/9 without even trying (before the Government figured out creative ways to milk the middle-class for more funds with which to pay off all the failed bankers, industries, and their poor broke CEOs… and, plant the seeds for it to happen all over again… hey, maybe even this year!).  That experience lessened Cathy's affections for private finance and she abandoned it before necessitating the quintuple-hernia-bypass operation, that most quants accept as part of the job. Incidentally, she was interviewed for “Frontline” about the financial crisis and all its dysfunctionalities way back here:

Cathy lives in New York city (which is apparently do-able though I’ve never quite understood how?). There, her son Aise sometimes performs standup comedy at the Gotham Comedy Club. Below is one of his earlier club performances (…which, by the way, I take as proof-positive of at least a one-time rendezvous between Cathy and Steven Wright some decades ago… not that that’s any of our business... all of which kinda reminds me of that time when I had a skylight installed at my apartment, making my upstairs neighbors furious!):

She has another son who's name I couldn't find (though I feel safe in guessing it isn't "Archie"), and a third son named “Wolfie” — now THAT is a great name! (…but then I think the whole world would be better off if all kids were named after plants or animals — in fact, if you wish, you have permission, like my first girlfriend, to henceforth, simply call me “Stallion”).
Uhhhh, moving on….

Cathy doesn’t seem to like to do anything for too long a time (a clear case of A.D.H.B... Attention Darting Hither and Beyond), and following quant-hood she started a blog on the Web under the moniker “Mathbabe;” a place for, in her words, “exploring and venting about quantitative issues” — with, dare-I-say, emphasis on the present-participle “venting.” Cathy is one of the best ranters around. And she can rant on all manner of things; doesn’t have to be something mathematical, like the quadratic formula or credit default swaps. She could probably rant about baseball or apple pie or even Matt Damon if the need arose. She’s as good and lively a writer as there is in the expository-quantitative-in-your-face-opinionated-digitized-and-emojied world of bloggerland.

At a certain point on the blog, Cathy introduced an alter-ego “Aunt Pythia” as an advice columnist, covering all manner of human foibles. If you’ve ever had an issue, question, or sorrow regarding the human heart or state of affairs, I suggest you read all her past columns, because somewhere buried therein you will likely find an answer to your woes (and besides, Ann Landers is long deceased… and was a tad stodgy in her day — one thing that Cathy and Aunt Pythia are NOT, is stodgy).

Like so many bipedal primates, Dr. O’Neil has had a bit of a love/hate relationship with Twitter over the years (or perhaps more of a tolerate/hate relationship), so she has periods of extended non-presence on the platform (and, like most sane and decent carbon-based lifeforms, she has dropped Facebook altogether). I assume Nassim Taleb has her blocked, but YOU can follow her on Twitter at @mathbabedotorg.

Her husband is also a mathematician (at Columbia)… funny how often mathematicians marry other mathematicians; I mean for the sake of the gene pool shouldn’t mathematicians be marrying sociologists or English lit majors or maybe New York city sanitation workers, just to, you know, kinda mix up all that DNA and mitochondria, and keep the species going?Just something to ponder... before we all expire from climate change anyway. Que sera sera.

In 2016, Cathy came out with her first book, “Weapons of Math Destruction,” all about societal dangers inherent to the algorithms that now run our lives and turn us into numbers, if not zombies (as she puts it, "algorithms are opinions embedded in code"). It was easily the best book title since Steven Strogatz’s “The Joy of X,” which was easily the best title since Erica Jong’s “Fear Of Flying” (which just barely beats out THIS item). I cited Cathy’s book as my own “math-book-of-the-year” for 2016 (…and yet never received a single ruble under the table from Cathy in return; still, I shan’t retract).
She covers many of the book’s main ideas in this TED talk:

Cathy was active in the Occupy Wall Street movement that began in 2011 (apparently thinking, in adorable fashion, that masses of passionate young people with body rings could stop the upper 1% from siphoning off everyone else’s life savings to off-shore bank accounts). Since she got involved, I think the Dow Jones average has risen about 931%, not that she, nor I, nor any other vassal will ever see any of that, with income-inequality now fully invoked as the Sharia law of the land.

I always especially enjoyed her take on the weekly Slate Money Podcast which, like other projects, she departed, despite there never having been even a hint of financial harassment from male host Felix Salmon.
She now writes short opinion pieces for Bloomberg, but honestly, they don’t have the punch and pizazz of her blog writing (though they may help pay for pet treats — I was not able to find out if Cathy owns a Pit Bull, a Rottweiler, or a Doberman, and will stand in utter disbelief if informed she owns a Labradoodle):

Her next project, started in 2017, was her own consulting company, “O’Neil Risk Consulting & Algorithm Auditing,” a bit of a mouthful, but shortened to ORCAA for seafaring clients. Yo Google, I think you should put her on retainer! And Goldman Sachs, you too (...and don't forget her Christmas bonus!).
Her company runs third-party audits on tech algorithms that are employed by businesses, for their fairness and legitimacy. Of course finding companies that are interested in fairness or legitimacy markedly limits your potential clientele (...but perhaps Equifax or Wells Fargo can help her find some). Anyway, a couple of previous articles on her work here:

She’s also now actively writing her second book, this time on “shame,” very timely for the 83% of Twitter users who have been publicly shamed at one point or another.  And then there are the 52% of white adult women who voted for Trump in 2016 and probably deserve a whole chapter all to themselves (…it will be entitled, “What the %#@!*(&%!!! Hell Were You Numbskulls Thinking or Were You in a Botox-induced Coma At the Time, Just Askin'?”).

Cathy’s been known to dye her hair teal, strongly indicating a genealogical link at some point to Evelyn Lamb who did the same and who I profiled before. I’m guessing the common ancestor in both of their lineages may be Susan B. Anthony; though it's possible they both came up through the Pocahontas-Elizabeth Warren line?

You sort of never know what Cathy will do next (but you know it will be good)… In fact I’m a little surprised she isn’t running for President right now; heck, I’m pretty certain she’d draw more support than Kirsten Gillibrand.

What ya gotta love about Dr. O’Neil is that she’s just out there — if something’s on her mind, she just says it… out loud… no beating around the bush or weasel words. WYSIWYG. And her heart seems to always be in the right place… left of center, right above her liver.
We need more people like Cathy out there fighting the good fight and being vocal about it (like Jeff Tiedrich)… so that if Donald somehow manages to get mindlessly re-elected (because 52% of white women are apparently certifiably nuts), many of us will at least have good company on that eventual cattle-car ride we're given to a camp in Idaho (and if for some reason I can’t travel with Cathy then I want Andy Borowitz by my side).

To conclude, Cathy names 97-year-old Betty White as one of her idols, saying she wants to be just like Betty when she’s older, so what better way to end than with a couple of episodes of “Betty’s Happy Hour”:

[and there’s plenty more where these come from]


[p.s… Previous Sunday profiles have been of: Matt, Evelyn, David, and Sean.]

Friday, May 10, 2019

Chi-i-i-i-i-i-ll Friday *

[ *  "Chill Friday" is Math-Frolic's meditative musical diversion, heading into each weekend]

(...and for Sunday another mathematician profile is in store)

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Courtesy of Stanislas Dehaene

Another verbatim re-run of an earlier posting from this blog, for those who missed it on the first go-around:
Try this exercise, I've copied directly from another book:

"Answer the following questions as fast as you can:

-2 + 2 = ?

-4 + 4 = ?

-8 + 8 = ?

-16 + 16 = ?

Now quick! Pick a number between 12 and 5. Got it?
The number you picked is 7, isn't it?"

...I succumbed to this piece of 'mindreading' when I read it in Stanislas Dehaene's 1997 "The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics." Did you?
He calls this a "demonstration of the automaticity of arithmetic memory" and explains it thusly:
"How did I read your mind? The mere presentation of the numbers 12 and 5 seems enough to trigger an unconscious subtraction 12 - 5 = 7. This effect is probably amplified by the initial addition drill, the reversed order of the numbers 12 and 5, and the ambiguous phrase 'between 12 and 5' that may incite you to compute the distance between the two numbers. All these factors conspire to enhance the automatic activation of 12 - 5 up to a point where the result enters consciousness. And you believed that you were exercising your 'free will' when selecting a digit!"
I'm not sure I find Dehaene's explanation completely satisfactory... but, I can't argue with the effect, which I did fall for.


Sunday, May 5, 2019

3 Varied Books... for thy reading pleasure

Just a filler post today to pass along 3 non-math books I’ve perused/enjoyed lately:

1)  (Physicist) Paul Steinhardt’s “The Second Kind of Impossible” is one of the more interesting (to me) popular physics volumes I’ve seen for awhile. Partly because it entails a bit of adventure along with the science/physics, but also because its main focus, quasicrystals, isn’t covered that much in other works. Since quasicrystals leads into a lot of discussion of symmetry there IS some mathy feel to parts of the text as well. The book gets away from some of the cosmology debates that frequent a lot of popular physics writing these days (though with that said, I did also enjoy Sabine Hossenfelder's "Lost In Math" volume). Steinhardt is an award-winning Princeton theoretical physicist well-known for offering alternative notions to the popular 'multiverse' view of cosmology.

2)  No doubt many of you will agree with me that the greatest living writer of English literature is Dave Barry ;) and his latest work, “Lessons From Lucy” is a must read for all dog lovers, probably all pet lovers, and generally lovers of fine literature everywhere, or simply those in need of a little self-help philosophy-of-life.  Dave, now past 70, recounts lessons he’s learned about life from his mutt Lucy. Hysterically funny, in patented Barryesque-style, though with a final section (about a family matter) that completely veers off in an unexpectedly different, but poignant and touching, direction and tone. Just perhaps more 'self-help' available in this little volume than in many books approaching the topic more seriously.

3)  William Poundstone is among my favorite popular writers, in part because he often deals with topics related to human cognition that interest me. Somehow I missed his 2016 volume, “Head In the Cloud” which basically reviews the ‘shocking ignorance’ of citizens in today’s world, with a lot of focus on the much-cited “Dunning-Kruger” effect. He has recommendations to improve the situation, but, given that the book came out in 2016, I have to wonder if he still sees hope after watching Trump get elected in November of that year! There are lots of examples and surveys (some of which I was a bit skeptical of), and I very much enjoyed the book overall (it's my favorite of the 3 mentioned here), though it bogged down a bit toward the end. It was timely, if not prescient in 2016, and just as timely now. I mean we humans need to be reminded repeatedly what doofuses we are.
[On Wednesday, by the way, I posted about one question posed in the volume.]

Anyway, I recommend all 3 of these books, varied as they are.

[For next Sunday another mathematician 'profile' is in the works...]

Friday, May 3, 2019

Chi-i-i-i-i-i-ll Friday *

[ *  "Chill Friday" is Math-Frolic's meditative musical diversion, heading into each weekend]

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Pushing A Button?… (ethics)

After some jest on Sunday, a bit more serious entry today....
Recently I mentioned on Twitter a simple survey question that William Poundstone reports at the very end of his 2016 volume “Head In the Cloud,” which runs as follows:
Would you push a button that made you a billionaire but killed a random stranger? No one else would know you were responsible for the death, and you could not be charged with a crime.
Poundstone says that close to 20% of survey responders answered yes to this query, which I honestly thought was surprisingly low. I haven't seen the origin or actual survey this question was a part of, but would like to know more details about it, like the sample size, and any breakdowns by gender, age, economic class, geographic region, etc. It’s hard for me to believe there wouldn’t be significant differences between some possible categories. (If anyone happens to know more about the specific survey Poundstone was referencing, and there’s a link to it somewhere with more details, let us know.)

On a side-note, when I tweeted this out Jim Propp let me know that the question is very similar to one posed in a wonderfully entertaining Twilight Zone episode written decades ago based on a Richard Matheson story. In fact the Poundstone version seems like just an updated, modified take on it. (If you've never seen it, and especially if you're a Twilight Zone fan, give the episode a view!)

The question is similar in nature to the various “trolley car” problems posed in psychology/philosophy to test ethical conundrums (I think there’s even a term for thought experiments of this genre, but it currently escapes me?). The trolley car varieties can trudge into difficult, debatable ethical quandaries. I think on the surface, Poundstone’s inquiry strikes people as less ethically ambiguous, because it seems as if greed is simply motivating one to kill someone. But I don’t think it’s that easy.  One can argue that with a billion dollars one could do a lot of good in the world, that might go undone save but for this one random death, completely apart from any joy the dollars may bring the recipient… and of course everyone is going to die anyway, you are simply altering the timing (and perhaps even giving a humane death to someone who would otherwise suffer). Possibly the random person will be a truly horrid individual who brings great harm to others; or a sickly or elderly person very near death anyway (of course, possibly not). If you think along certain lines (trying to justify pushing the button) than does the whole equation change if for the same billion dollars, 10 random people, or 100, will die? 1000? Or what if instead of a billion dollars, you receive only 1 million, or (as in the Twilight Zone episode), $500,000? Obviously LOTS of possible tweaks.
What if you know that half the adults in the world are all being simultaneously given this same option... does that change your decision? Or, all adults?
So many ways to modify the question slightly that might alter any given individual’s response (HERE'S one pretty comical version I found on the Web). I suspect some folks think they would never push the button, that their ethical standards are too high to do so. But what if instead of a random person being killed, it’s say a random monkey, cow, dog, horse, etc. — I suspect that may change the decision for many people… but should it, really? 

A lot depends of course on how one views death and the preciousness of (human?) life (which in Western culture especially, tends to be an automatic assumption, but again, should it be?); and of course religious thought/indoctrination enters into it. Still, in reality we exist in a crass world where pragmatics take precedence over strict ethics throughout daily routines (probably far more than we realize or dare admit). Strictly speaking, I’d contend that very few of our decisions during waking hours are ethical ones, but instead selfish ones (not that 'selfish' and 'ethical' can't coincide sometimes). "Red in tooth and claw" is a phrase commonly applied to nature (animals), but, at least in a metaphorical sense, perhaps applies equally to human activity as well. "Altruistic" behaviors do of course occur, but principally, humans act in their own personal (or loved-ones') best interests, often to the detriment of others.

Anyway, for whatever reason, I find 'the button' an interesting abstract thought experiment.  Worth noting too, that increasingly 'trolley car' type problems, have 'real life' consequences, with driverless cars being produced right now that must include software incorporating 'ethical' decisions.  And humans will write that software. 'Ethics' will become a product of corporate focus groups (not that it hasn't been the 'product' of religious and legal groups in the past). Theoretically, ethics should be reducible to algorithms... or... should it? 

I've long thought that in another century "privacy" simply won't exist any longer except as a quaint forgotten (almost laughable) concept in student history books. Am beginning to wonder the same thing about "ethics." :(  Will 'ethics' be so built into the zeroes and ones of AI that it no longer exists as a subject of contemplation or debate? Luckily, I won't be here to find out ;)
(...but hey, maybe once again, the current Administration and its ethical-void is simply weighing too much on my mind.)

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Sean Carroll…. raconteur, expositor, blogger, world-traveler, bourbon-taster, husband of Jennifer Ouellette, Philadephia 76ers-fan, and occasional physicist

via Wikipedia
Having profiled 3 mathematicians at this point (Matt, Evelyn, David), seemed perhaps time to branch out a bit, while staying with someone that most mathematicians (and all “Big Bang Theory” fans) will know: physicist Sean M. Carroll....

Dr. Carroll is ubiquitous in the cyberworld of non-tenured professorial types (but more on that later), and truly one of the most publicly-engaged scientists ever to brandish an emoji. Whatever you think of his commitment to crazy Everettian theories you can’t deny his sincerity, persistence, and boyishly good looks, which he may be sick of hearing about (...I have it on deep background that there is a portrait in his attic which is graying and aging shamefully while Sean’s face and hair remain unchanged over time).

Sean was born on October 5, 1966, making him, to the best of my memory, a Vertigo (but then I get all of Alfred Hitchcock’s films confused so who knows). It also means he can’t even remember JFK’s assassination, and I don’t much trust anyone who can’t tell me where they were the day that Donald Trump's dad took out JFK.  Anyway, Dr. Carroll seems always quite content, affable, and optimistic… perhaps yet another reason not to be trusted. But seriously, I don’t know anyone (in my circle of 3 friends) who doesn’t like Sean. Part of it is that little bit of accent he has, that almost sounds British or European or perhaps Nepalese Yak-herder-ish… I can’t quite place it, but it’s almost infectious (and I mean that in a good way, not a bubonic plague sort of way).

I have no idea if his parents named him after Sean Penn or Sean Connery, but I feel safe surmising that he was NOT named after Sean Hannity (who’s name, by the way, is merely an offshoot of his own grandpa Satan Hannity).

Sean’s fuller academic background can be seen HERE, where he discloses that he matriculated at Villanova, enrolling there, no doubt, for the basketball, before getting sidetracked by all the coeds he noticed sashaying to astrophysics classes.
Next stop was Harvard for his PhD. in astronomy (a school that has since proven to be a renowned training ground for future bloggers).

Sean has been blogging since 1776 when Thomas Jefferson decreed that everyone had a right to life, liberty, and good science explication. OK, so I exaggerate a bit, but you get my drift… he’s been around a long time. His current blog is, which can be misspelled in 97 different ways, all of which probably lead to porn sites (…and none of which give him any monetary remuneration whatsoever).

Here are some posts he’s done specifically focused on mathematical topics (…unfortunately, not a single one of them proves the Riemann Hypothesis):

But dang, if Sean isn’t all over the place, preaching the joy of physics and its many, many, many, many worlds (yeah, he’s kinda hung-up on that). He has his own YouTube channel here:
…but is also featured in a bazillion-jazillion-quintillion more videos:

I think if you drop him a craft beer you automatically get 37 minutes of free interview time, during which you may hear for two hours about the first nano-zeptillionth second of the Universe in excruciating detail... even though he wasn't even there at the time.
And for a glass of high-end bourbon he might even collapse a wave function or two right in front of your eyes... something that I previously thought only David Copperfield could do.

You can easily spend the next millennium just watching Sean in videos explaining the same things to different fans over & over again… NO, actually he loves to talk about a wide variety of topics from philosophy to science to religion to poker to humanity to basketball stats to free will. He's almost a one-man activist for raising civil conversation on the Web to an art form (and now that I think about it, I've never seen Sean and Jordan Peterson in the same room at the same time... hmmm). I'm pretty sure there are Sean groupies all over the country, not unlike what Barry Manilow once had.
The University of Chicago (where he was teaching), to their eternal shame, failed to give Sean tenure in 2006. And while he doesn’t overly-dwell on it, his discussion of elite university tenure was one of his early widely-read blogposts:
By now he’s so well-known and has so many ways of making money and friends in high places, that he could probably tell Chicago to KMA (…but he would never do that, so I shan't suggest it either).
After he departed U of C, a small college out west called “Caltech,” in their abiding sympathy for the unemployed, took a chance on him to fill the shoes of the late Richard Feynman. In desperation he took the position, forfeiting those delightful Chicago winters (and life on the streets) for the abject misery of Southern California and its boring, constant 72˚ lush, blue-sky sunny days -- the rest, as they say, is history (perhaps with some astronomy, booze, and rock ’n roll thrown in). He seems to love teaching, be it in the classroom or the world-at-large. And his two cats, Ariel and Caliban, have probably learned more physics than most American high school seniors:

Sean has written two books centered on popular physics topics (time and the Higgs buffoon, or something like that) and a third book (“The Big Picture”), more philosophical and broadly appealing, touching upon an ambitiously wide range of subjects. Sean argues for what he calls “poetic naturalism,” essentially proposing that things are the way they are because things are the way they are… and that is all the case because things are the way they are. Carroll was actually raised as an Episcopalian, but my eldest sister was married by a hard-drinking, womanizing, and later-defrocked Episcopalian priest, so it's no surprise to me that Sean is now an atheist -- unlike some though, he doesn't bludgeon you over the head with his personal view, preferring instead to use a scalpel and a putty knife.
Later this year his 4th book, explaining once-and-for-all quantum mechanics to the proletariat, will hit the stores… at least in this universe. Read up! this may be your last, best chance to understand that which every other physicist confesses is not humanly comprehensible. Sean believes in both the multiverse and the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, but is waiting for more LHC data to decide whether or not Santa Claus truly exists.

I don’t know where he finds the time (even assuming it goes in all directions) but last year Dr. Carroll started his own hour-plus, splendidly-done podcast ("Mindscape"), and from the get-go it’s had the quality, erudition, variety, that are by now his trademark. The range of guests has been phenomenaI from Homer Simpson to Taylor Swift (or some such). I can’t do it justice here, but if you’re not familiar with it, you MUST visit and listen to a few of the unpredictably wide-ranging guests and conversation (the episode with Wittgenstein, so I'm told, was especially enthralling).
(p.s… though Sean enjoys some philosophy he’s been known to utter things that might make Karl Popper rise up out of the grave and bop Sean on the noggin, if only he could get the damn lid off that wooden box.)
Last year Sean opened a 2-and-1/2 hour Joe Rogan show talking about his podcast (before proceeding to many other topics):
(His first appearance, by the way, on Rogan is HERE.)
I have to admit I actually enjoy Sean's philosophical/cultural commentaries/analyses even more than his physics instruction.
Dr. Carroll is of course on Twitter, @SeanMCarroll, where as a rational, well-spoken, decent human being he persists amongst a cesspool of apparent aliens and trolls from the Planet Zluto. Jack Dorsey allows him to stay on the platform in spite of his pleasantness. Actually, for those who don't already know it, Sean does have a second Twitter account just for 'venting about politics' where, on any particularly bad day, he just might employ the word "darn."
(Some have suspected he's also the force behind this Twitter account, but there's not a pico-shred of evidence for that.)
Additionally, Sean has done at least one “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit, but since I ignore that site I have no idea if anyone stumped him. I would however make a special point of watching if he ever went up against James Holzhauer on Jeopardy!
By the way, it’s very important NOT to confuse physicist Sean M. Carroll with the biologist Sean B. Carroll (just think “M” for multiverse versus “B” for Buttigieg, if that helps) — I can only imagine the confusion and hilarity this may have led to on double dates.

Speaking of double-dates, in 2007 Sean did not marry his childhood sweetheart, Marie Curie, but instead, in a match made in star cluster NGC5139, wedded English-major-turned-science-blogger Jennifer Ouellette in one of the first-ever adorable blogger hookups in cyber history — I have no idea how OKCupid pulled it all off. 
By now all their raw animal lust has probably dissipated and they’ve likely settled into mundane lives, editing each others’ science scrawlings (and perhaps seeing other bloggers on the side when discretion allows… but I won’t speculate on any names). No, no, I’m making that up for the sake of prurience and more clicks. Not even Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity make a lovelier couple than Sean and Jennifer.
In fact in earlier years of this blog I had a Valentine’s Day tradition of linking to Jennifer’s lovely blogpost about meeting/marrying Sean, and the horniness of Fourier transforms. It’s classic:
(And according to one rumor... that I'm starting here... Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga have been tapped to star in the big screen version of Sean's life.)
Moving on, one of my all-time favorite science stories, is Sean’s recounting of his association with that bloke Stephen Hawking; if you’ve never heard it, it’s must-listening (or must re-listening if you have heard it):

I'm not competent to judge Sean's considerable body-of-work in cosmology and theoretical physics, so I can't say with certainty if he's won his various awards and citations through brilliance or bribery, but I can say with confidence that he'd make a better President, or EPA Head, or Secretary of Interior, or Senate Majority Speaker, than those currently in office. (But, heck, I'd say the same thing about Garrett Lisi, so take that for what it's worth.)

Famously, Dr. Carroll has contended that all the underlying physics of everyday life are now understood and can be summarized in one single equation. I know you’re probably all thinking the equation is:
…but NO, you’re badly mistaken -- as if serving no purpose but to mortify Leonhard Euler, Dr. Carroll’s equation looks like this:

You can imagine the jocularity that ensues whenever Sean brings this up at a cocktail party or leaves it on a napkin as the tip for a waitress at Hooters (...of course Sean only dines at Hooters when his department head schedules a working lunch there... or, on half-price pitcher nights).

Anyway, I could write about Sean for a whole ’nother 43 minutes and still have barely scratched the surface. I don’t know that he will ever be eligible for a Nobel Prize, but if there was such a thing as Noble Prize he’d be a shoe-in! 
I hope you now feel you know Dr. Carroll (at least the one who resides in this universe and with middle initial “M”) maybe a little bit better… and I hope one day, somewhere, even if in a galaxy, or another universe, far, far away, he gets tenure.

p.s.… any high schooler doing a theme paper on Dr. Carroll, and using this post as a reference source, does so at their own risk.

Available for pre-order:

Friday, April 26, 2019

Chi-i-i-i-i-i-ll Friday *

[ *  "Chill Friday" is Math-Frolic's meditative musical diversion, heading into each weekend]

(...and Sunday, the gods permitting, and if Donald hasn't launched nuclear weapons somehwere, there will be yet another 'profile' of an internet star up here)

Sunday, April 21, 2019

David Hilbert… One of the Greats (…and, very dapper)

Well, I’ve profiled one man and one woman here on other Sundays so now it’s time to profile… a dead person. The advantage is that they’re not around to sue you (not that I’ve heard from any of Matt's or Evelyn's lawyers thus far!)

Anyway, I’ve always loved the rather dapper, man-about-town look of David Hilbert in his iconic headshot pictures. I mean they just don’t make men’s hats like that any more… or I’d have 5 of them to cloak my B-spot. David was certainly one of the greatest mathematicians of the last few centuries, even if not often placed in quite the same category of esteem or recognition as perhaps Euler, Gauss, Galois, Riemann, Poincare, and Tom Lehrer. Nor was he ever as funny as Matt Parker or Alexander Grothendieck (talk about a laugh-riot!). But still, he has a certain savoir-faire or je ne sais quoi or just anti-dorkiness.

What actually got me thinking about David recently (other than hat-envy) was reflecting upon Kurt Gödel, and how, at such a young age he went before a gathering of top mathematicians of his day and smashed their world, pulverized it, when they never even saw it coming! Many didn’t fully grasp what Gödel presented with his incompleteness theorem, and others somewhat understood it but didn’t realize its full impact. But Hilbert who was fashioning the rigorous, formalistic, anal-compulsive approach to mathematics at that very time, immediately saw that Gödel was essentially saying ‘David, you frikkin’ idiot, stop it already with all your nonsense’ (well, except, of course, Gödel didn’t use the word “frikkin”). And David acknowledged the ramifications for his program. He could’ve felt threatened or defensive, or been critical of smarty-pants Kurt, but this wasn’t his nature — instead of entering battle with a critic, he would just sleep with their wives and move on (no,no, I’m just kidding… I think). 
Hilbert was above all a seeker of the truth, wherever and whoever it came from, and wherever it led, no matter its consequences for his own predispositions. So rather than hire a hit man to whack Gödel in his sleep or sprinkle novichok on his doorknob (as Putin-protege Donald Trump would’ve done), he actually semi-embraced and helped spread the new-found knowledge.
Similarly, with Cantor, it was Hilbert who put his own reputation on the line and courageously defended the upstart thinker when many others of the day were attempting to tear him down with his radical notions of infinity and itty-bitty-ness. Instead, Hilbert famously saw a new “paradise” for mathematics, dismissing the critics, and leading to the continuum undecidability, math insanity, and 3blue1brown videos of the next century (not to mention giving us the best drinking song ever).

A little background: Hilbert originally heralded from Prussia and had the same birthday as my father, so I congratulate him for that bit of excellent timing. At the age of 10 he entered the Friedrichskollegium Gymnasium for academically-gifted students... i.e., those who could both pronounce and spell the name of the school. Later, he advanced to the University of Königsberg receiving his math PhD. ~age 23. From 1895 to 1930 he spent his life teaching at the University of Göttingen in Germany, likely the top university for mathematics of its day, before the eventual rise of MIT, Harvard, and Pomona College. 
He worked alongside some of the all-time greats at one point or another:
Hermann Weyl, Emmy Noether, Edmund Landau, Eugene Wigner, Ernst Zermelo, Hermann Minkowski, Lebron James (my usual check to see if you are still mindlessly reading along). 
During this time Hilbert also intellectually jousted with Leopold Kronecker and L.E.J. Brouwer, two other heavyweights of the period. Still today, these two are known to spin in their graves at the very mention of the name ‘Hilbert’… much as Abe Lincoln does, even faster, at the mention of the name “Donald.”

Is it any wonder that at that time one of the bumper stickers that flourished throughout Königsberg was “WWDD”… “What Would David Do?”
Religiously, Hilbert was a Calvinist in the Prussian Evangelical Church… personally, I’ve always thought there was more fun and deep thought to be had as a Hobbesian, but to each their own.
And David was one of the last of the great "universal" mathematicians who dabbled in most all areas of their field of study. This was before the internet came along and academics began narrowly specializing in tweets, memes, gifs, or emojis.

He is likely best remembered for boldly challenging mathematicians (perhaps after a wee bit too much beaujolais), at the 1900 International Congress of Mathematicians in Paris, to solve 23 crucial unsolved problems over the next century.  
About 2/3 of Hilbert’s original set have partial or full solutions by now (like which way to put toilet paper on a roller dispenser), but another third, like trisecting an angle, continues to defeat the best minds. Chief among the unresolved problems is the Riemann Hypothesis, about which David once famously said, "If I were to awaken after having slept for a thousand years, my first question would be: Has the Riemann hypothesis been proven?" — coincidentally, this is also the first question I utter each morning upon awakening after 5 non-stop hours of restless-leg-syndrome.

It was also Hilbert who first developed an algorithm for a space-filling curve (characterized by Evelyn Lamb as “a real knee-slapper!”) to which all his students gasped in awe immediately upon seeing, before then asking, “But wait, when can I ever use THIS?” Despite such eternal questions it is reported that David was beloved by his students, who could sometimes be heard chanting in the hallways, "Dapper Dave, he's our fave! everyone else is just a knave" -- except it wasn't quite as catchy in the original German. 

Little-known fact: before tweaking it and hitting the big time, Scott Adams tried out an unheralded comic strip about a professor who wore jaunty hats named “Hilbert.” But it flopped. 
OK, so in the vernacular of KellyAnne Conway, that’s more of an ‘alternative fact’ than a real or little-known fact, or in the vernacular of normal people, it's a complete fabrication.

Anyway, Hilbert retired from Göttingen in 1930 as the Nazis were gaining power in Germany and most of his Jewish colleagues were leaving. Remarkably, and sadly, it’s reported that only 10 people attended his funeral in 1943 (age 81), so many of his friends having departed. A lonely, unfitting end to such a major mathematics figure. Even Mitch McConnell may have more then 10 people show at his funeral (believe it or not).
Despite the work of Gödel, Hilbert’s famous epitaph on his gravestone read (translated), “We must know, we will know.” …I s’pose it could be added, ‘or, we’ll die trying.’

David made far more contributions to mathematics than I can possibly summarize here (...but then he’s dead, so he’ll never know what short-shrift I’ve given him).
He may not be as funny as Matt or as contemporary as Evelyn, but whenever you think about really fascinating, difficult problems, or about math's rigor and formalism, or about a nerdy philosopher pulling the dang rug right out from under you, think of the life of good ol’ David and pay homage.

More seriously, I’ll let Hermann Weyl have the last word:
No mathematician of equal stature has risen from our generation… Hilbert was singularly free from national and racial prejudices; in all public questions, be they political, social or spiritual, he stood forever on the side of freedom, frequently in isolated opposition against the compact majority of his environment. He kept his head clear and was not afraid to swim against the current..."
                                                                              -- Hermann Weyl
Now excuse me while I go shop for a fedora…

[...not sure if I'll be doing any more Sunday "profiles" but readers are free to send along any names they think deserving ;) ]