academiamarginalia

The life and self-reflections of a professional mathematician

Category: thoughts

Feynman on Bananas

When a researcher starts to think about something new, something he does not understand, he often feels confused and stupid. Doing research is unhappy business. Everybody has his own trick how to overcome this heartbreaking feeling. Mine is to watch the following video where Richard Feynman is talking about bananas :) When I see that even Feynman feels stupid, I feel much better!

A View From The Window

I was unpacking my luggage when I quickly looked in the window and suddenly, without any reason, a flow of scattered thoughts swept me off. The main stream of this flow was “this is a step back.” The thought was gone as quickly as it came, but even now I can feel its aftertaste.

A view from the window, The Elizabeth hotel, Singapore
May 19, 2012

How small is our small world today?

In 1967, Stanley Milgram of Harvard performed an ingenious experiment, demonstrating that, although our world is highly clustered, it is still very connected: everyone is on average approximatrely six handshakes away from any other person on the planet; six degrees of separation. It would be interesting to repeat Milgram’s experiment in our days. How small is our small world today? On the one hand, thanks to globalization, the world is becoming more and more interconnected. The average number of friends (what the last word means) of a randomly chosen person grows with time. On the other hand, the total population of the planet grows much faster than exponentially. What is happening with our world? Is it expanding or shrinking in the Milgram’s sense?

Why should social science students learn math fundamentals?

We all need a good reason to do things well and with pleasure. And the answer to the posed question is not obvious at all. “You will use the learned material in your future life” is a bad reason, since the statement is very likely to be false. “Because it is a requirement towards your degree” is an excuse rather than a good reason.

I can suggest two reasons – cultural and athletic – to hopefully increase your motivation.

  1. After you graduate, it would be nice not only to have a diploma, but also feel that you are indeed a well-educated person. A hundred years ago, to be well-educated, it was enough to be able to read. Nowadays the standards are slightly higher. Knowing and understanding of (very basic) concepts of mathematics is one of this standards.
  2. When we go to gym, we don’t have a goal to break a world record. We train our muscles just because we want to be in good shape and look good. Math is a gym for our brain-muscle. If we want to be in good intellectual shape, we need to workout in the gym.