The founding mothers of Silicon Valley

It’s not entirely true that one can’t be what one can’t see, as this article argues. But it is almost true, much harder, and only exceptions will make it. Therefore, great idea:

How is a theorem born?

A nice short review of Cédric Villani’s book, Birth of A Theorem (by Stephen Muirhead, PhD student at UCL)


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Money for nothing, research grants for free

This really is not some value-neutral fascinating social phenomenon such as the currently  en vogue “academic acceleration“: it is a bad use of academic time! Sure, some of the literature discussing “acceleration” is good, but I have a feeling it dance s around the subject a bit too much. Thanks to Jan Blommaert for calling the spade a spade (and apologies for the distasteful crib of Dire Straits lyrics in the title):

After submitting, we heard that a total of 147 applications had been received by the EU. And that the EU will eventually grant 2 – two – projects. In a rough calculation, this means that the chance of success in this funding line is 1,3%; it also means that 98,7% of the applications – 145 of them, to be accurate – will be rejected. And here is the problem.

[M]any millions’ worth of (usually) taxpayers’ money will have been used – wasted – in this massive and mass grantwriting effort. Several hundreds of researchers will have been involved, each spending dozens if not hundreds of their salaried working hours on preparing the application, and hundreds of university administrators will have been involved as well, also spending salaried working hours on the applications. These millions of Euros have not been used in creative and innovative research – they weren’t spent on doing fieldwork, experiments or tests, nor on writing papers and holding presentations in workshops and symposiums. They were spent on – nothing.”

Jan Blommaert, “Rationalizing the unreasonable: there are no good academics in the EU”, 10 June 2015,

(Image: Milena Kremakova ®2007)

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The Perils of Maths

This would be funny if it weren’t real. When I read this story I first thought it was a remake of the old joke about Al-Gebra (check out the link for a detailed history of this dangerous terrorist movement):

“At New York’s Kennedy airport today, a person later discovered to be a public school teacher, was arrested trying to board a flight while in possession of a ruler, a protractor, a drafting triangle, a compass, and a calculator.

During a press conference the Attorney General said he believed the man was a member of the notorious al-Gebra movement and the FBI intends to charge him with transporting weapons of math instruction. […]”

(from Weapons of Math Instruction,

And there was another joke, about a postdoc from Iran flying to a conference and working last minute on his paper about “blowing up points on a plain”.

But alas. This week, a real mathematician, Guido Menzio of the University of Pennsylvania, recipient of the 2015 Carlo Alberto Medal for best Italian economist under 40, was questioned and removed from a flight because a fellow passenger thought that his differential equations were “in Arabic”, he was concentrating too hard, and suspiciously avoiding questions, and the flight attendants had to investigate the complaint.

Dr Menzio was brought back with an apology and the 40-minute flight did leave, with a 2 hour delay.

The whole story (written up with some good humour):

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Serge Lang (1927–2005)

“Why did Bourbaki stop writing?” The answer is that they discovered that Serge Lang is one person.

The story about “this notation sucks” and other interesting stuff about his life and work…

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The disposable academic

An old article in the Economist about what happens after PhD (spoiler: not so good things)… still true.

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Fields medalist Klaus Roth (1925-2015) has left a fortune to health charities

Klaus Roth, Britain’s first Fields Medalist, who died last year at the age of 90, has left over £1.3 mln to the charities Chest, Heart and Stroke Scotland and MacMillan Cancer Support in Inverness, Scotland. How wonderful to read not only about a life full of mathematics, but also that is has been rewarded financially. It is not so often that I read of a successful professional mathematician who has passed away in their old age, and with a substantial fortune.

Roth’s life story is fascinating. One of the many British scientists of German origin, Klaus Friedrich Roth was born in Breslau (today Poland) in 1925 and came to Britain as a 8-year old child in 1933 with his Jewish-German parents. He went to St.Paul’s school in London and then studied mathematics in Cambridge. He was good at maths, but his anxiety during exams was so bad that he graduated with a 3rd class degree and his tutor advised him to “some commercial job with a statistical bias”. So Roth taught maths at school (Gordonstoun, in Scotland) for a year and then was accepted onto a Masters course at UCL. He went on to become a lecturer at UCL after completing his Masters. Times were different. Today he might not have made it to a MMath course so easily, let alone receive a lectureship so soon after. He would have had to move countries many times before having a shot at getting a permanent job somewhere.

Klaus Roth went on to make important contributions to number theory (analytic theory of numbers and more precisely Diophantine approximation) and to live happily with his wife, Dr Melek Khairy, until her death in 2002.  Pity the article in the Scotsman mentions only the lovely story of how they met (classroom romance! she attended his lectures at UCL), and that they did not have children, but omits the fact Dr Khairy was a medical and experimental psychologist at Imperial College London. Plenty of happy marriages in their generation were composed of an academic husband and a homemaker wife, with or without offspring. But when someone, especially a woman, of that generation isn’t a homemaker, this is worth mentioning. In fact I assumed that until I googled her name for no particular reason, only to come across a bunch of paper she had published in the 1950s and 60s.

Another relevant biographical detail is that she died of cancer in 2002. After her death Roth moved to live in a nursing home in Inverness. This may be why he felt so committed to the cause of health and cancer support in particular.

In the book Art in the Life of Mathematicians (edited by Anna Kepes Szemerédi and viewable on google books) there is a chapter written by the editor which is entitled “Conversations with Klaus Roth” (pp. 249-253). Klaus and Melek were avid dancers and loved Latin music and Mahler.

Klaus Roth got the Fields Medal in 1958 for his contribution to the Thue-Siegel theorem. Roth’s theorem proves that any irrational algebraic number has an approximation exponent equal to two (

More about the story:


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Happy Pi day!

Freie Universität Berlin  

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