RIP astrophysicist Vera Rubin

More sad news for the end of 2016: one of the world’s famous astrophysicists, Vera Rubin (1928-2016), passed away on Christmas Day. 

Rubin worked under Richard Feynman (how lucky is that!) when she studied at Cornell. She got her PhD in 1954 from Georgetown university – because her first choice, Prinston’s astrophysics programme, did not admit women at that time. For her groundbreaking discoveries in astrophysics she got many prizes but her contribution to the discovery of dark matter was overlooked by the Nobel prize committee.

Read more about Vera Rubin’s life here:


Savilian Professor Nigel Hitchin reflects on his life in mathematics

Fascinating autobiographical interview about the life of a mathematician!

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Backre(action): nice blog

I like this person. She sounds fun. And she tackles a stereotype head on, without being afraid to acknowledge which bits of that stereotype may actually be true. Nice little read.

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An unusual mathematician’s biography…or not

“For the first 27 years of his life, the mathematician Ken Ono was a screw-up, a disappointment and a failure. At least, that’s how he saw himself. The youngest son of first-generation Japanese immigrants to the United States, Ono grew up under relentless pressure to achieve academically. His parents set an unusually high bar. Ono’s father, an eminent mathematician who accepted an invitation from J. Robert Oppenheimer to join the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., expected his son to follow in his footsteps. Ono’s mother, meanwhile, was a quintessential “tiger parent,” discouraging any interests unrelated to the steady accumulation of scholarly credentials.


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Academic Rapunzels, or Leaving academia – but hitherto?

This article is about the emotional effect of leaving academia. There is little actual talk about emotions in the article. It is largely an optimistic-sounding story of a career in science communication after a PhD. But why is there so much effort to justify this career “turn” and why is it so heavily about rebranding, organizing, management, objectives, timescales? Why is the first of three main lessons that unemployment is not the same as failure? A society must be very confused if enough people in it genuinely believe that work – or rather paid employment – is the sole kernel of their identity, and that unemployment equals failure.

So while the article sounds like a happy ending to a previously stormy journey through the post-PhD career, it is actually an article about what is wrong with the academic system. It is about leaving research, but not really leaving it, and instead finding work in the fringes, or what I like to think of as the scaffolding of research. It’s an article about an academic system which tricks a lot of people into thinking they are welcome, and then kicks them out because there is not enough space (or funding) for them. There may not be enough room in the lab, the lab is a cut-throat business, only the very best make it. Yet there is always room for one more in the scaffolding! We can always do with more people to take care of the scientists! These academic caretakers are doing a valuable job, some are happy and find their skills well applied, others swallow their disappointment because they are making a living and are even close to what used to be their dream. But why are there so many administrators, communicators, managers, strategists, and so few researchers, or “students” – as academic authors used to like calling themselves in papers only a few decades ago? And why is it mainly women who take these timid career paths out-but-not-really-out of academia, while male PhD holders end up in industry jobs in larger numbers?

The article reminded me of those multiple, identical articles I’ve read about how to find work abroad as a trailing spouse. The authors are all women, and they all say that while real jobs are hard to come by, look how great it is that we now control our own schedule and can work on our own macbook in a hipster cafe. And when you look at their signatures, they are all “freelance writers” or “professional bloggers”. And they do that because that’s what they chose to do. They combine work with family because that’s what they chose to do. And have time to bake cookies (and keep applying for jobs and not getting them) because that’s what they like. I am being cynical, but the point is: when lots of people choose something, they are clearly being reasonable. Being a para-academic who hangs on like Rapunzel on her own hair from the fringes of the academic scaffolding, over the abyss of unemployment, is clearly one of the open paths, or at least a path less closed than its alternatives.

I have no answers – only questions and quibbles.


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The Mathematics Department at Leicester University

The EMS has issued a statement on the deeply regrettable proposed staff reduction in the Mathematics Department of the University of Leicester. Click through to read it:
Timothy Gowers has written an account of the situation here:
There is a petition you may wish to sign here:

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