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.

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