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 ;) ]

Friday, April 19, 2019

Re-thinking Gödel…

Pre-empting the usual musical interlude this Friday just to ruminate a bit over something....

Most readers here likely know the famous story of Kurt Gödel’s 1947 visit to an examiner’s office to apply for U.S. citizenship — it’s been briefly told many places, as I did HERE.

Gödel, logician that he was, thought he’d found a 'logical flaw' or 'contradiction' in the U.S. Constitution that would allow a dictator to take power in the U.S., not unlike what Europe had witnessed. Friends, Oskar Morgenstern and Albert Einstein, talked Gödel out of bringing this up at his examination, believing, according to some accounts, that his worry was 'far-fetched and outlandish.'  No one knows for sure what his qualms centered upon, but the most widespread guess is that he was concerned about Article V of the Constitution allowing for amendments to the Constitution… even amendments that might weaken/eliminate various checks-and-balances and hand more authority to a despotic leader. We could theoretically amend ourselves right into a dictatorship.
The appeal of this explanation is that it reflects Gödel's well-established interest in self-reference: i.e., the Constitution could be amended, the amendments could be amended, the amendments to the amendments could be amended, etc.
While certainly possible, I’ve never been fully comfortable with that ‘guess’ of Gödel’s thought process, because Kurt probably realized what a slow, arduous path amending the Constitution actually is… with ample opportunity along the way to redress or put the brakes on ill-founded changes.
I’ve begun to wonder if just perhaps what Gödel had in mind was, alternatively, something far simpler, more direct, and more mathematical:
He would’ve clearly understood the math of the Electoral College (as spelled out in Amendment XII of the Constitution), and recognized that a demagogic individual could become President with a minority of the citizens' vote (not even a plurality, let alone a majority) by simply concentrating on a handful of key states. Then, with backing of a subservient Party he might run roughshod over most checks-and-balances simply with the judicious use of Executive Orders, Executive Privilege, emergency measures, martial law,  and the President’s function as Commander-In-Chief of the military... may or may not be a better explanation than the Article V focus, and might or might not be viewed as a 'logical flaw.'
In the oft-quoted words of Sinclair Lewis (who was contemporaneous with Gödel):
"When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross."
In short, if enough of the electorate is naive and ignorant enough to elect one, isn’t every democracy at risk of putting a despot-to-be into power (and made even easier with our Electoral College system)?
Is THAT what Gödel realized 72 years ago?
Or heck, maybe I'm just makin’ crazy talk? ;)

[sidenote: Though it’s not a planned ongoing feature, I will have another mathematician “profile” of sorts up here this coming Sunday, and a couple of suggestions for others to profile have come in so there might(?) be others in the future — if you wish to suggest someone feel free to email or DM me.]

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Evelyn Lamb… freelancer extraordinaire

Shortly ago, when I did the in-depth profile of Matt Parker someone emailed to say I should do the same for a female mathematician… and, who am I to argue with my loyal readers (or even the treasonous ones). There are many such XX mathematicians to choose from, but in the end I sent my crackerjack team of investigators out to learn what they could about Evelyn Lamb because she, or one of her clones, seems to show up everywhere in cybersphere these days (almost as much as Katie Bouman!). And he-e-e-e-re's what we learned....

Though good at math, Evelyn's stronger interests early in life were in biology, medicine, and music, (probably around the same age when I was deliberately breaking open thermometers at home in order to play with the mercury). Doesn't faze me a bit that she went through such an early phase, only getting deeply intrigued by math in her junior year of college at Baylor. It was an “inquiry-based learning” class that opened her eyes to the beauty/creativity of math, rather than the ‘hairy-ball theorem’ that I’m sure hooked most of us. She calls herself an academic descendent of the great Bill Thurston in her approach to mathematical thinking in general… much as I regard myself as a descendent of the incomparable Harpo Marx.
Evelyn eventually got her math PhD. from Rice University in 2012 (at the very time that so many of us were asking the eternal question, ’So, ya want fries with that?’). I believe it was also at Rice that she met and married her math husband and they vowed to grow forever asymptotically together (or something like that). She escaped Texas and briefly taught at the University of Utah as a post-doc, before heading off to New York city on an AAAS mass media fellowship to work in science journalism. There she soon became a math blogger for the Scientific American blogs, with her now well-known Roots of Unity” blog, which she calls her "playground."

My own recollection (but correct me if I’m wrong… just do it gently), is that she was replacing Mark Chu-Carroll who had been the long-time blogger for the “Science Blogs” network that became Scientific American blogs. Mark of course had replaced Alexandre Grothendieck who had abandoned blogging entirely in favor of living as a French recluse and playing Sudoku. (...OK, so maybe my memory gets a little fuzzy or confused on some of these details.)
Anyway, Dr. Lamb’s writing style and focus was somewhat different from Mark’s (though her hair was nicer), but she worked hard at her craft and is now one of the best math essayists around, freelancing full-time. She says she writes to ‘make people happy’ and make math enjoyable, which she readily succeeds at. (p.s... whoever said, ‘never end a sentence with a preposition’ can eat my shorts!)

One popular feature of her blog is “A Few of My Favorite Spaces” where Evelyn may wax poetic about the Cantor Set, the Menger Sponge, the Koch Snowflake, the Möbius Strip, or the Olive Garden. 
Earlier on by the way, Evelyn also had blogs on two other interests, food and sewing, showing her versatility and the domestic skills she can always fall back on if mathematics becomes obsolete — I don’t know what Matt Parker will do if mathematics ever goes out-of-style, because I don’t recall listing any domestic skills whatsoever for him -- he does however have a much better English accent than Evelyn, which can take you far on the comedy circuit).

One of Dr. Lamb’s primary interests in math is Teichmüller theory, so hopefully some day she will cogently explain, as Shinichi Mochizuki has been unable to do, the proof of the ABC conjecture, to the applause of an awaiting mathematical throng. Then we can all finally move on to the DEF conjecture.
She's previously written of being torn between “reporting” math as a freelancer and “discovering” math, as academics do… no doubt much as I often find myself torn between Chinese take-out and Ben&Jerry's. Decisions, decisions...

Evelyn is a member in good-standing of the “American Mathematical Society,” the “Association for Women in Mathematics,” the “National Association of Science Writers,” and the “Association of Math-Frolic Interviewees International,” where she was interviewed in 2013:
There she mentioned enjoying traveling, bike-riding, yoga, ultimate frisbee, and bungee-jumping with small furry critters (just threw that in to make sure you’re still reading). No indication whatsoever that she and her husband have taken up pickleball yet... lazy slackers!!
A really nice, illuminating interview that is more recent than mine, is here from the AMS:
I couldn’t find Dr. Lamb’s birthday so will assume that she is a Libra with Gemini rising (though I could be mistaken, as I was once in 1997). Her husband is a mathematician who shares initials with John Conway — woooooo, how spooky is THAT! (then again I have the same initials as Srinivasa Ramanujan, and yet haven't spoken with Namagiri even once in the last fortnight, so mehhh).

I don’t know if she owns any pets, but I can picture Dr. Lamb with a cat, hamster, or goldfish named 'Emmy.' Which reminds me that in her spare time Evelyn enjoys tracking down mislabelled pictures of Emmy Noether on the internet and hoping lawyers will send threatening letters to the pernicious progenitors.  And if you plan on using a picture of Sophie Germain on your website, well, you better get it right or Evelyn will hunt you down! In fact, in order to avoid her wrath I'm deliberately leaving out any pictures of Dr. Lamb in this piece, lest I accidentally pick one out of Evelyn Waugh that is erroneously-labeled!
Evelyn has been known to color her hair various shades… I especially like teal, which I'd probably try myself if I weren’t quite so follicularly-challenged.
Besides a fondness for teal, Evelyn and I share other oddball quirks. She calls herself a ‘literalist,’ a descriptor I’ve used for decades never knowing there was another member of this set. It just means a tendency to take words very literally and be upset upon finding that some casual, lip-flapping, imprecise, slack-jawed doofus out there meant something other than what their words actually said (OK, that’s my elucidation, not Evelyn’s). I think it all started way back when my mom sat me down one day and said she wanted to talk about the 'birds and the bees' but then proceeded to.... ohh, n-n-n-nevermind!  
Also we both share a curmudgeonly attitude toward certain holidays, rituals, celebrations and the like, so no need to invite me to your next or 4th wedding (…though if coconut cake is involved I may relent). Thus Evelyn is not a fan of “Pi Day,” for example, and will probably never be seen in a Vi Hart video of the celebration. Although I suspect she and Vi could have a rollicking fun afternoon playing together with hexaflexagons.
And our musical interests are completely divergent; I’m still hooked on the 60s/70s, the only music, as we all know, that will still be around two centuries from now, while Evelyn leans more toward a lot of old dorky stuff involving actual composition and orchestration (y-y-y-y-awn) . She also plays the viola, whereas my own keen talents were honed on the kazoo and the triangle.
Dr. Lamb writes for so many venues now, and reads so many great things each month, that she likes to pass it all along to her fans in her once-a-month, not-always-so-tiny “TinyLetter” that you should all subscribe to — it’s free, but if you send me $20 and your email address I will personally see to it that you are added to her subscription list (you can thank me later, or just enclose some dark chocolate with your check).
Evelyn can of course be followed on Twitter with the handle @EvelynJLamb… just one of several folks I know who have a quaternion unit as their middle initial (so many parents out there were mathematically more creative than mine back in the day). She also maintains a list of over 300 female mathematicians who are on Twitter (...and are praying right now that they never get profiled here):
More generally, she has been a great advocate for minority mathematicians of all stripes, though she’s hardly done a thing on behalf of short, balding, old, disheveled, arthritic, Platonist, male, stigmatized number-theorists… still, in fairness, I’ve never heard her utter a bad word about Paul Erdös.

In a recent tweet, Evelyn mentions that “I do have another project in the works that I'm excited about and I hope to be able to share in a few months!” Perhaps it involves one of her other interests, prime numbers, tilings, music theory, or fashion design, or maybe she will simply announce she's running for President (so far she's one of the few who hasn't).
With Kevin Knudson she started a podcast “My Favorite Theorem” that has quickly become among the most popular math podcasts (with two hosts and a 3-word title beginning with the word ‘my’) out there. In this format they compel mathematicians to talk briefly about some favorite bit of mathematics and then pair that math with some type of food, beverage, toothpaste, personal hygiene product, whatever. Thankfully, no one has yet ever managed to pair anything with kale.
If she doesn’t run off with some oboist with the New York Philharmonic on a lark, I think we can expect several more decades of splendid math reporting from Evelyn, a few books, an eventual biography by Siobhan Roberts, a run for President, and perhaps a made-for-TV-movie of her life’s work, starring Jodie Foster and entitled “Science of the Lamb.” 
(yes, I’ll go to my room now….)
(NOT Evelyn Lamb) *

   * IF this picture starts showing up in Google searches for "Evelyn Lamb" and people
      use it, I'll consider my life's work completed.

Friday, April 12, 2019

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

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

...and on Sunday scurry back here where I'll again be 'profiling' an outstanding member of the math community

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The Crafty Law Student

This week's Wednesday re-run riddle/paradox of sorts I originally saw in Bryan Bunch's "Mathematical Fallacies and Paradoxes" (1982) though I've totally re-adapted it here:

To demonstrate what a fine teacher he is, Larry the Lawyer contracts with each of his students such that they need only pay him for his individual instruction IF and ONLY IF they win their first law case. If they lose that first case they pay him no fee.

However, one of his students, Squiggy, upon completing the course, opts simply not to try any cases at all to avoid paying any fee. Perturbed, Larry feels compelled to sue Squiggy for payment (since avoiding trial cases in order to avoid payment was not intended as an option). Once the case comes to court Squiggy represents himself. IF he loses, then by the original contract he does NOT have to pay Larry! IF he wins the suit then the court will have ruled that he does NOT have to pay! Squiggy appears well on his way to being a superb lawyer....


Sunday, April 7, 2019

Mathematical Genius... It Takes All Kinds

A post ranging from the comic to the criminal!....

Tuesday is Tom Lehrer’s 91st birthday! YES, he’s still alive! (any rumors to the contrary are greatly exaggerated). But will get back to him in a moment…

Awhile back on Twitter I mentioned that a local retired math professor had been giving free talks on “modern math” topics for a couple of years, and over time, sitting in on those talks, I realized he’d had direct experience with Tom Lehrer, Alexandre Grothendieck, and Ted Kaczynski (the ’Unabomber’)… a rather motley, and surely interesting (even bizarre), mix of mathematical minds!

The math prof is Mike Schlessinger (of “Schlessinger's theorem), long retired from the University of North Carolina. His math PhD. came from Harvard (1964) under John Tate. Before North Carolina he taught at Berkeley, and his main area of interest is algebraic geometry.

Anyway, I inquired a bit about these past acquaintances and got some brief answers.

But first, asking him about his own pathway to mathematics Mike told me it started with his 9th grade teacher saying that some infinities were larger than others, and that intrigued him. And then another teacher told him, also intriguingly, that “the dimension of a point was zero.” …and so the path begins.

[...This made me remember my own experience in 10th grade of being told there were different sizes of infinities and thinking to myself ‘this is nuts!’ Another kid in the class (more brave than I) squandered time arguing with the teacher back-and-forth, until, in all likelihood someone probably ended the ‘debate’ by asking, “Is this gonna be on the test?” ;) ]

Anyway, moving on, Tom Lehrer was a friend of Mike’s at Harvard where they were both working on PhDs. in the early 60s -- Lehrer originally entered Harvard, as a prodigy at age 15 receiving his math B.A. degree in 1946, only returning many years later for the PhD. program that he never completed. I asked Mike if Tom’s humor was already well established then or if he was surprised by Tom’s later widespread success. The answer was yes and no… Tom was a very funny guy in college, already with some notoriety, and so no surprise he succeeded with that for a wider audience.

You can listen to this rare, 40-year old NPR interview with Lehrer if you wish:

And my personal Lehrer favorite (never gets old) probably has to be “Lobachevsky”:

It was Alexandre Grothendieck that personally gave Mike the question for his dissertation (again, at Harvard). He says that like many others, he regards Grothendieck as the greatest mathematical thinker of the 20th century… but also notes that AG was very eccentric and so he wasn’t surprised when he “went off the deep end.”
An odd, old interview segment with Grothendieck (audio a little weak) from YouTube:

I just discovered myself that, according to Wikipedia, Grothendieck had 5 children who I've never heard anything about... any involved in mathematics? Or, if anyone knows anything worth passing along about them feel free to mention in comments. (Mike said that during his time at Harvard he never saw Grothendieck's wife or any family members, and his anti-social tendencies were already apparent.)

As far as Ted Kaczynski (who graduated high school at 15, and entered Harvard at 16, where he got his B.A. in math), Mike knew of him back when they were both instructors at Berkeley with offices down the hall from one another, but didn’t really interact with him, nor note any peculiarity in him at the time, although he wasn’t overly shocked later upon learning Ted turned out to be the Unabomber. I won’t publicize Kaczynski with any further tribute here, but IF you don’t know of his deadly anarchistic exploits you should probably look him up. 
What’s odd is simply that each of these 3 deep mathematical thinkers all somewhat divorced themselves from society, but in such hugely different ways and outcomes. How difficult can it sometimes be to straddle both the abstract world of higher mathematics and cope with the in-your-face, day-to-day world of human society? Choosing humor/satire, isolation/reclusiveness, or violence as a coping mechanism?… the enormous diversity of humans.

As far as any other noted mathematicians Mike was personally familiar with, he mentioned Dennis Sullivan, and Fields Medalists Bill Thurston and Jean-Pierre Serre.

Finally, I asked Mike which current mathematician’s work he most enjoyed following and the answer was again topologist Dennis Sullivan.
[On a side note, for anyone wanting a good, but not too technical or equation-heavy, introduction to topology Mike highly recommends Jeffrey Weeks' "The Shape of Space."]
And lastly when asked which mathematician, dead or alive, that he’s never met, he would most like to sit down with a cup of coffee and discuss math, “Bernhard Riemann” was Mike's prompt response… wouldn’t mind munching on a scone and coffee at that table myself!

[Hey, just a heads-up that for next Sunday I have scheduled another 'definitive' profile of a current mathematician you all know... but who, unlike Matt Parker, has no "R" or "E" in their surname.]

Friday, April 5, 2019

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

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

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

The Fixer...

Another mid-week re-run (more logic than mathematical). This very simple one (a good one for youngsters) comes in many forms but I'll pose it again as “The Broken Water Heater Problem” as follows:
Last week, I lost heat in my apartment when the water heater broke. I contacted someone in the building and showed them the water heater, and with a bunch of parts he had on-hand he was able to repair it and get it working. I paid him happily for his services.
Is this person more likely:
a)  An accountant?
b)  An accountant and a plumber?
Even if you’re not familiar with these type-questions, hopefully upon a moment of logical reflection the reader recognizes the answer should be a) that the person is “an accountant.”

The problem is, often people DON'T really give a moment of ‘logical reflection,’ instead jumping to the conclusion that it's more likely (more probable) that the individual must have plumbing skills, and thus must logically be “an accountant and a plumber.” But of course ANYone who is ‘an accountant and a plumber’ is automatically ‘an accountant’ (within 'logic' I believe this sort of classification error goes by a specific name, but am too lazy to try to look it up just now)— in Venn diagram terms, the circle of accountants includes wholly within it the circle of ‘accountants and plumbers,’ but, as I say so often, it is words that lead logic astray. In fact, words are so vague and imprecise and ambiguous it's a wonder, as Gödel noted, that we can successfully communicate at all! As we head into a highly charged political season, it gets me thinking (well, dismaying) how much of our communication is visceral, emotional, non-verbal, and primed by predispositions, rather than actually based upon information or word meanings.