Thursday, December 27, 2007

Long time no see

A lot has happened since. Students S#3 and S#4 graduated, and they got postdocs for this year and next year. Also, S#6 who's graduating in 2008 already has an offer (and more to come - he has done a great job). S#6 had a brilliant idea, with a great statement and a bogus proof. I hope that soon she'll get the proof right. S#7 is also doing pretty well. So altogether I have now three students, since S#6 will probably never graduate, but become a brilliant teacher instead.

I got some administrative responsibility, which I'm making a mess of, but not worse than the previous holder.

On the family front, C#1 likes gymnastics much better than she did basketball. She has a new maths teacher and her problems with the subject seem to vanish; nevertheless, she seems to have inherited my reading style and not my math love.
To give you an idea, she got one 350-page book as Christmas present. She finished it yesterday morning, and at lunch time she was on page 250 of the second reading. She doesn't look like me at all, but she's definitely my daughter :-).

C#2 speaks german fluently, if rarely. He still can't write his own name, and complained that Santa brought a game with letters but none with numbers. C#3 is trying to write more and more, and we're confident that a breakthough on the diaper-in-the-night front is also near in time.

We had a lovely Christmas + Boxing Day, just the 5 of us plus nine-year old neighbor J as a bonus elder sister. We played bingo and Monopoly and two different versions of Labyrinth (ours and hers) and baked cookies and ate them. C#2 expressed as further wishes to Santa that C#3 stop crying so much, and that mama would tickle him (C#2, that is) more often. The second wish has been granted :-).

Mostly, I'm wondering whether to move to a scientific blog in my actual name. I feel that there are not enough women scientists blogging in their own name, and there are not enough mathematicians of any gender. Speaking of which, I'l include two great examples of math blogging: the latest John Baez, with a commented list of free math books online, and John Armstrong with a lovely "Yes, Virginia" Christmas post. Of course if I could write like either of them (both in style and depth) I would definitely blog under my own name.

In related news, C#1 figured out that it's not Santa that brings the presents. She looked very proud of herself, and not shocked at all.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Students update

It seems to get slowly better. I have now read four of five pages of S#7 and it is all pretty reasonable. She is a bit creative with conventions for my taste, but I have to admit that the meaning is at all points totally clear. That's really good.
Unfortunately, tomorrow I will have only half a day for mathematics, since the afternoon I'll be busy with the birthday party, and the rest of the week I will attend a conference with the aim of improving my cv, not my mathematical culture. At least I should meet an old college friend, who chose a different side of mathematics and whom, as a consequence, I see rarely indeed.
I am also optimistic that S#3 and S#4 will finish their dissertations and get a postdoc; in the moment S#3 has a postod and S#4 a dissertation, but improvement is in the air. S#2 got a new postdoc, and a long well-paid one. Since S#1 chose to be a teacher, and S#5 has chosen to leave mathematics, I don't feel as bad as I did. And in a few weeks the number of students that I am responsible for will go down to four, two of them shared... I feel so excited, if I'm not careful I might as well accept another one!

Season change, or lack thereof

I have finally finished selecting, washing, drying, folding and sorting the children's old stuff. Since I haven't done this basically since the birth of the twins, it was not only a herculean job but emotionally draining as well. As I dug deeper into the layer, smaller and smaller outfits came to the light, many of them still looking pretty new. I kept wondering where my lovely babies had gone, and who the big boys infesting my flat could possibly be.
Unfortunately I wasn't able to arrange immediate dispatching, so many boxes and bags are now lying around all over my bedroom and livingroom. A few of them contain also clothes of mine, including the elegant (and, you guess it, good-as-new) outfit I wore for my graduation - in my country we just wear nice clothes, nothing specifically academic. Hopefully all the boxes etc will be gone by tuesday: I can't help being a bit envious of Twice and every other mother of twins enjoying being part of such a group.
After all the work, the children started insisting that we go to the beach. Normally it's way too cold so late in the year, but the sun was shining, and I was exhausted... I decided, why not? The children bathed in very low, very warm water due to extremely low tide. I went with them, water until my knees, clean as it never is during summer, and basically all for us. We spotted crabs and fishes of various dimensions, and a large selection of shells. We stayed until the sun started setting.
On the way home, the twins fell asleep; after a quick dinner, all three are now peacefully sleeping.
It was a wonderful way to say goodbye to the summer, enjoying the calm sea and perfect limpidity of water and air, with dozens of sailing boats and behind them, in a bluish haze, the hills (and the factories, but maybe one needn't be too precise).

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Intense week

I didn't do any research this week. I spent several hours doing support to the students. I should be happy that they are getting productive, but this means a growing pile of mostly badly written and occasionally wrong theorems accumulating on my desk.
I wasted an outrageous amount of time doing university politics. I may or may not have an official administrative duty in the future (I hope not), but I will have to invest a lot of time doing brown-nosing, which is the officially certified method to get poitions in one's own field in my university. It is very sad, but I'd rather submit to the indegnity that have my student suffer from me being overworked; plus, one deserving young person will get a good job, if I play my cards right. Still, part of me hopes to move eventually to a better and more honest place, if one exists.
I dedicated some time to maternal activities: I went to a meeting with the schoolteachers, planned a birthday party, and (drumroll) finished sorting and packing the enormous backlog of no longer needed clothes in our flat. Plus, I managed a trip to Ikea and bought a large amount of no frills storage funiture; when it will be delivered (by Ikea) and mounted (by WS, with some paid assistance) I expect a much neater household. I already reorganized C#1's clothes cupboard, and the twins' is due tomorrow. Mine will have to wait for a new, unbroken cupboard. I am still overdue in organizing the children's extracurricular activities: C#1 wants to try a new sport, for which she needs a medical certificate, C#3 will do violin, or swimming, or both, and C#2 will most likely sit on a chair and suck his index finger.
Next week I'm off to a conference, and after that courses start. I am wondering when I'll start to do research again, and hoping that it won't be too long.

Parents undressed

Slate has an article with the fascinating title "Are children harmed by seeing their parents naked?". The article itself is even more fascinating, since it completely avoids the question in the title. It starts by declaring that no studies exist, so in a sense the answer is "we don't know".
It then proceeds to say that younger children may not notice and in any case will not remember, so they should be no problem.
Mercifully, it also mentions that breastfeeding doesn't cause trouble, at least at age 12 months. I can't say anything about later ages since my kids decided to stop breastfeeding not much later than that.
It then goes on to discuss possible problem mentioned by adolescent psychiatrists. However, no evidence is given for such problems. It finishes by explaining at what age children want to stop using the other sex's bathroom, and what age girls don't want to be bathed by father any longer.
There are a few points I would like to raise. First of all, it should be very easy to study children of nudists, and see whether they have any specific sexual trouble. After all, there are plenty of people who go vacationing in nudist beaches with children.
Then, it should be possible to compare americans with northern europeans, who are used to seeing grownup nudity (e.g., when people change bathing suits on the beach they don't cover up).
Finally, a few remarks about my own kids. We are raising them as I was raised: going to the bathrrom for solid reasons demands a closed door, since concentration is required; any other activity does not prevent the use of the bathroom by the rest of the family. If you think this is crazy, try to grow up in a household with only one bathroom and see where this leads you.
My children know how they differ from each other, and from us. We have explained that grown ups have hair under their armpits and between their legs, that men have a larger didi then boys, and that girls and women have a didi so small that it's hard to see. We also explained that women need a diaper on a regular babies, since they loose blood; this is the blood which forms a nest for a baby inside the mother, and when it has been there too long and no baby needs it, it gets thrown out before it goes rotten.
My kids are squeamish about using the "wrong" public toilet, and they insist that their clothing and haircut corresponds to societal standard for their gender. They also prefer to pee privately, I suspect (but have only circumstantial evidence) so as not to use toilet paper.
I always saw my parents naked, and I grew up more or less normal. Or maybe I didn't, and haven't noticed yet.
However, one question about this article is really, really important to me now: is there a way to make sure boys do not want to be bathed by mommy anymore? I certainly wouldn't mind sharing the bathing duties along gender lines: C#1 showers on her own, needing only a look to check that all the shampoo has been rinsed from the head, while the twins resist and C#2 has still a strong opposition to having his hair washed. Had I known for sure that less nudity in the household would have led to me avoiding bathing duties for the twins, I would bought a burqa years ago.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Growing old and liking it

As their hair slowly turns grey, or red as the case may be, most women encounter a series of physical changes. However, many of them, my own mother among them, maintain a fully feminine body despite the advancing years; others, like my children's nanny, surpass their own already considerable achievements in matters of softness of the chest area.
It is pleasant to know that I am not alone in belonging to neither of these categories.

Good mothers

With my usual delay I noticed a very good post at Tertia's So Close with an awesome list of comments.
Many mothers (fathers are mysteriously, or maybe not so mysteriously, absent) argue repeatedly the same point: that as a mother you do your best, and have to work with the child/children you have. No a priori method works in all cases, and different children have different time schedules for reaching benchmarks like sleeping through the night or stopping diapers/pacifiers/bottles.
Mothers of twins have an even clearer understanding of that, since they often behave in totally different ways: even same sex twins do that, and I understand even identical ones.
I think the post above should be mandatory reading for every first-time pregnant woman, and for any of the many people who are always ready to criticize other people's educative methods.

Friday, September 14, 2007


In the past two days I spent a nontrivial part of my time and most of my energy discussing hiring policies in our insitution with a number of people, including all the colleagues in my research group and the head of the whole institute. The result is that important information has not been forwarded, and other has been "lost". As a result, a position which we had planned on advertising soon also got "lost", and someone who is in his late forties, married and with a child on the way might or might not be given the tenure track position that was informally promised to him years ago. The same position that prevented him from getting an offer anywehere else "because we know you're going to be hired at XXX".
In particular, I am faced with the following two alternatives:
1) ether the head of the institution, or the head of my research group
2) either a liar or imbecile.
I am trying to decide which alternative I like less. Or more.

As a side remark, the head of the institution said several times that I am "cute" and referred to me by a diminutive form of my first name (say Venny instead of Estraven) which in our language would only be appropriate for a child.

I got too many invitations to conferences. When am I ever going to write a paper again?

Friday, September 7, 2007

The usual double standards

Newspapers everywhere have been full of sadness and lament over the death of Luciano Pavarotti. The world-famous tenor, who died at 72 of cancer, is survived by his three grownup daughters from the first marriage and his 4-year old daughter from the second marriage. A twin brother of the latter died in childbirth.
I am of course sorry for any loss, and the fact that I cannot tell the difference between a good and a bad singer doesn't prevent me to realize that he had exceptional gifts; he was also, as far as one can tell from the outside, a generous person who tried to raise money for the less fortunate.
But I can't help noticing that nobody is interviewing philosophers or priests as to the morality of having a child when you're 68, just as nobody started discussing whether the death of the twin was related to receiving a 68-year old's faulty gametes.
I wish I could say that he gets special treatment because he was such a great artist. But I am concerned that he only gets it because he's a man. The same newspapers and magazines were full of contempt for a woman who had twins in her sixties not long ago.
Addendum: In fact, despit the catholic doctrine not admitting divorce (and therefore not recognizing second marriages), Pavarotti is going to have a church funeral.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Half and half

I spent this morning being a mother. Or maybe a Übermother, considering that I had three guest kids visiting: one girl the age of C#1 and two boys the age of C#2 and C#3. I managed to do two washing machines, hang one and a half, clean up the kitchen, and prepare enough lasagna for everybody: all this in my spare time from the main activity, i.e., preventing the kids from killing each other and destroying the flat.
I am pretty proud of myself, and view this as an investment in the future (at some later day, the parents of the guests will be taking care of my kids). I only regret that I didn't get to eat any of the lasagna, so I had to grab a sandwich and a coffee before facing the afternoon as scientist.

  • 2-3pm: discussion with the consultant for european grants. I did learn something, in particular that I just missed a deadline, but also that there is a very interesting call coming up in January 2008 and one in May. I just can't believe I can produce a decent proposal in time.
  • 3-4pm: student S#6 tells me about the new reference he has found, and the progress he expects to make about that. We discuss some projects about how to organize his work in the next months.
  • 4-5pm: S#4 and I go through the Nth version (for N>100 - she has at least one a day) of her thesis. Some of the major problems have been solved, but she still has a writing style too close to physics. Improvement is evident and I try to be optimistic.
  • 5-6pm: S#3 and I go through his proof of something which I thought should be obvious but ended up not being so. It seems this time he has really fixed it, but some further adjustments are needed (especially "easy" details). I hope for best and we plan to meet again on friday.
  • 6-6.50pm: S#9 tells me he has finished working out the details of the proposition we discussed last time. The result is pretty much of the kind I hoped it would be. I outline what the next steps are supposed to be, and we start discussing the table of contents of his thesis. He might have proven everything he needs to prove before Christmas. Then we discuss which techniques he should use to prove the remaining steps. At 6.50pm his alarm goes off and he tells me I should go home. He is that considerate.
  • 6.50pm: I call WS and ask him to go home. I also tell him what edibles our refrigerator and our deepfreezer contain.
  • 6.50-7.30pm: continue discussion with S#9, including which school/conferences he should attend and when precisely he needs to have a readable, preliminary version of the thesis ready - and why.
  • 7.30-8pm: wasted time on the internet in a desperate attempt to unwind. I feel like I don't have a brain any more.
Many thanks to Sciencewoman for having this idea of charting down how to use your time.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Home improvement, and other weekend employment

I spent a lot of the weekend planning changes in the way our flat is organized. It is reasonably large, at least for the standards of the country I live in, but it's totally messy. Some of the cupboards don't open and close properly, and a few drawers are really in bad repair.
I don't have the time to go looking in different shops, plus WS and I like Ikea furniture anyway. So I spent several hours over the weekend searching the Ikea catalog and checking online whether the stuff was actually in the store. As usual, the store nearest to where I live has only about a third of the stuff listed on the catalog, so I will have to face a really long drive.
WS does most of the mounting, but he hates choosing. So I just took all the measures, made plans, ad showed him a list with the final result. He then suggested a few changes, but basically approved: we have known each other for almost two decades and can estimate pretty well what each other likes.
The main aim I have is that the children learn to keep their own stuff in order: to do that, they have to know where things should be put, and everything has to be easily accessible. Some signs of slow improvement are already visible: they did put away some toys, after being asked and being told which box they should use. I also did some tidying up so that now all the Duplos are together (I should buy Legos soon, I know - but I first need a good box!).
And I can't very well complain that they don't keep the books in order when there's entirely too little shelf space for their books to fit in. I wonder how other parents face this problem; C#1 laments that she doesn't have enough books, that she has read them all and is totally bored.
I spent a couple of hours supporting WS's mood, too. This involved listening at length to the precise symptoms of his latest ailment (he hurt his own shoulder doing sports) and hearing all the details of his latest research project, which is very far from the overlap of our scientific interest and required really a lot of focussing on my part.
I also spent two hours helping a visiting colleague who is going to be here for a month: I picked him up at the station and showed him around, politely explaining that yes, some people here might speak english, but he shouldn't count on it. Maybe I shouldn't have done that, since he's not visiting me at all, but I felt kind of sorry for him; the person who invited him will not be back for a few more days.
Finally, I am proud to say that with ten days still to go, the list of stuff to buy for the new school year of C#1 (which has been stuck on the fridge since June) has now been completely ticked off. Everything is ready. Fall may come now.
Still, I hope I will manage to go the seaside next weekend.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

How much housework should children do?

I just read an article on the Guardian about a topic I have recently given a lots of thought to: children and housework. As a totally spoilt only child, I never did much. I helped preparing the table (at 7-8), filling and emptying the dishwasher (at 10-12), and keeping my stuff in order whenever I was yelled at.
I didn't make my bed since my grandmother found I couldn't do it right anyway. I never cooked anything or used the washing machine; only halfway through my teenager years I discovered how the vacuum cleaner works.
As a result, or maybe not, I am a total slob. My dream is to live in a room-and-board situation when someone else cooks for me, washes, irons and folds my clothes, and cleans up my room. Funnily enough, this is precisely how I lived in my years as a student, and I loved it.
So I feel kind of awkward asking my children to do anything. Still, I think I will soon start having C#1 prepare the table and put the dishes in the dishwasher, maybe introducing symultaneously a weekly pay. That's what my parents did: the money I received was supposed to be payment for my household work. Is 7 old enough? Should I wait until she turns 8?
As for C#2 and C#3, I have started yelling at them to put away their toys, with as good as no success. I am also meditating a "from now on you wipe your own ass" official declaration when they turn 5, but maybe I should wait a bit longer. I'm just so fed up with it.
Anybody has thoughts or suggestions on this? WS is not able to give competent advice, since he never helped much in the house either, and his mother is the only woman I know who's even more of a slob than I am (thankfully, or he would find it very hard to live with me).

Friday, August 31, 2007

Making order

The week now closing has been nonexistent from a research viewpoint, due to excessive time spent with the children. So I did other things.
I started tidying up the clothes and shoes cupboards at home. I sorted through piles of stuff which doesn't fit any child in my household anymore, and divided the better (to be given to friends with younger kids) from the not so bad (to be donated to charity) from the bad, which I threw away. Having empty space is a lovely feeling, and I hope I can keep going.
It is a lot of work, though.

Elegance and science

When I think of the word elegant in a scientific context, it is usually in the sense of "The Elegant Universe", although of course I think that mathematics is way more elegant than physics will ever be :-). However, occasionally one has to consider that elegant for a human being usually means well dressed.
The only time I saw Lisa Randall, that is what impressed me most: that she is carefully
dressed in a way that most scientists (female and not) aren't. Well, that and the fact that her handwritten slides where so hard to read: I can't deal with makeup but at least my handwriting is more elegant than hers. Unfortunately I also didn't understand her talk, but that was entirely due to my lack of an appropriate background.
I don't find it bad that Tommaso Dorigo commented on her looks: she obviously gives this issue a lot of care. I did go back and read previous reports of talks by Dorigo: he never seems to refer to the looks of the speaker, male or female, but in the case of Randall he made an exception, because the looks are really striking in this case.
As Tony Smith pointed out in the comments to a later post by Dorigo, she even made an appearance on Vogue: taken in context, her statement seems actually very reasonable, and not sexist at all.
This said, I don't think that people who criticized Dorigo for including a comment on Randall's looks and her attractiveness were totally unjustified. It also seems to me no coincidence that negative remarks came both from female and minority physicists. Unfortunately there are too many physicists who do not treat men and women on equal grounds (have a long read at FSP if you have doubts about it), and therefore even reasonable people have to watch their language.
I also don't agree at all with Dorigo in the third point of his subsequent explanatory post: politely requesting pc language (not imposing it, mind you) is a reasonable thing to do. When your words are wrong, your thoughts can easily go wrong, too. In the US, eliminating the word negro from polite conversation hasn't eliminated racism. But I still view it as a progress.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Family work in a man's words

Via Salon, I found this lovely article on the New York Times. It's about a work-from-home dad who complains about how much timewaste a family actually is: in particular, how much times goes wasted in small daily emergencies. Nothing new there for me, now.
I occasionally wished I had known about this before the children were started. Maybe I would have reconsidered WS's suggestion that being an only child could have positive sides. I will try to remember this next time I compare my publication list with that of scientists with spouses who take care of all this extra work.
I actually do a bit more of my fair share, but then WS does more of the routine tasks because he hates the emergencies even more than I do. I am also ashamed to say that reading the article made me think "How long have the children gone without seeing a pediatrician?".

It's not an end, but a beginning

Here the world as we know it has come to an end. If I were writing german I would say that we have a Super-GAU (it roughly means the worst possible disaster, one which is out of control): the nanny took an extra, unauthorized-but-paid week of vacation, and the summer camp canceled the current week. So we (or, in this case, I) have the kids with me the whole day. Of course the weather, hitherto perfectly sunny, has decided to turn bad precisely this week.
I spend part of my time doing children shopping for the winter, like school stuff, shoes, and clothes, and some in my office, trying to get something done while the kids sink in an orgy of DVD's. All this interspersed with playground hours and organizational meetings with other parents for childcare and birthday parties.
A very beautiful essay I read long ago (I can't even remember what language it was in, much less the author), suggested that "It's not an end, it's a beginning" is a good guideline for any official speech: at a graduation ceremony, at a wedding, a retirement party, and even at a funeral. It applies well now, as the academic new year's eve approaches fast.
In particular, I used the occasion of being stuck in my office with a blaring cartoon movie to tidy it up and make order. I produced four large boxes of waste paper and three bags of junk, and my office looks much much better now.
I asked WS to throw away it all for me while I staid in the office with the children. He did it after receiving the following instructions: the boxes of waste paper go in the paper recycling bin; the bags of junk go in the general junk bin; you have to go there with the car since it is too far away to walk; the car is in the parking lot. Sometimes my spousal interations vaguely remind me of computer programming.
As I type, the children are colouring cartoon pictures on my desk, and I am trying to concentrate on doing some marginally useful work. I find it very hard to concentrate with all kids in the same room: legend has it that Euler could do research while kids played on his lap, so in principle it's not impossible (maybe that's how he got to publish as much as he did).
This year is really supposed to be a new beginning for me. I am reducing the number of students to a level compatible with my advising ability, I am going to spend some research time abroad with the whole family for the first time since the twins were born, and I am hopefully going to do some serious writing, both in research and on expository matter. I am cautiously optimistic. Happy New Year to everyone!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The end of summer

Actually summer isn't finished yet. School start is yet more than two weeks away, and bathing season might go on even a little longer than that. But today it's raining hard, and my personal vacation is finished, while the child minder isn't.
So what did I achieve this summer? Nothing from a professional viewpoint. I didn't do anything at all for more than three weeks. I slept a lot, ate more than usual, and enjoyed my children. I even managed not to quarrel with my parents (I must admit they also tried very hard).
The children did a few amazing things: C#1 managed to write one nice diary entry as part of her homework. For the twins, C#2 stays dry through the night, and C#3 has learned to swim, but not conversely. The whole family has a very impressive suntan, and in particular the children have blatantly inherited my mediterrenean complexion and not WS's milky one.
I am now slowly trying to go back in a worklike frame of mind, which isn't easy since I have only very few hours per day to work and everybody else seems to be still vacationing. On the other hand, a lot of work is clearly lurking on the horizon.
I am excited and worried at the same time. As a child, I remember thinking that the end of summer/beginning of fall period feels much more like the beginning of a new year than Jan 1st does. As an adult, I feel this even more strongly. So happy new year to everybody!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

I finally read the Deathly Hallows

I know, everybody else has finished it weeks ago - and so far, I have only found time for one reading and one quick rereading. But I still wanted to write a short review, without spoilers.
Or, rather, since I seem to be uncapable of a coherent review, a list of remarks.
  • There's so much there about the trouble of growing up, and the specific case of doing so in a boarding school. Very british, all that, including the division in houses.
  • I have staid in a student dorm for years. We didn't have four houses, but a clear cut division science/humanities. I really felt at home at Hogwarts. (I know, this contradicts the above. So sue me).
  • I didn't like very much the writing style. Some parts are just too long, to my taste. Luckily I read really fast.
  • I love the new words she invents. I wish we could hire J.K. Rowling and have her name all new mathematical concepts.
  • I disliked the epilogue. Sorry. Too much information, and at the same time not enough.
  • I am kind of impressed that such a mainstream novel is completely and totally atheistic. In particular the characters face a lot of life-and-death choices in a very moral (or immoral, as the case may be) way without the need to refer to any organized religion. I am wondering in particular whether JKR purposefully wanted to show that life and death can have a sense even without a belief in a life after death. A question that I never found easy.
  • I find the atmosphere of loss of democracy through/followed by ad hoc laws and a control of the media extremely disturbing. Maybe because I see so much media control in reality. Of course in fact she's just giving as a history course, and the worst things she mentions are in our past and (hopefully) not in our future.
  • I want to make a final remark which contains a spoiler. So I am putting it as first comment.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Love thy colleague

I was very surprised when, a few days ago, I read in a comment by Count Iblis on Am I A Woman Scientist?'s blog that he manages to write papers with people he has never met. Since I have done plenty of collaboration with people who were physically far away, I stopped, and asked myself why I found it so strange.
The answer is, of course, that all my co-authors have been friends; indeed, we were friends or at least good acquaintances even before we became co-authors. Indeed, the relationship goes both ways: I have expanded my research field in certain direction, in order to read papers by people I found interesting, or even so that we could collaborate. On the other hand, I have become a close friend of researchers I started talking to because of pure scientific interest.
Indeed, more is true: I tend to think of the mathematicians in my field, those that I have known now for one or two decades and that I occasionally meet somewhere in the world, those that I invite to my conferences and whose papers I referee (and conversely), as my "village". That is, the place where I am at home; where people know me and accept me as I am, including plenty of problems (when I read of people complaining about slacker co-authors... well, that's usually my role).
Although I still keep contact with some of my pre-university friends, they are not so many, and the contact is infrequent. The friends I've kept for three decades now are those who at least try to understand why it is reasonable that I occasionally leave husband and children behind and travel to another town, or country, or continent, to try and prove theorems.
My social network in the town were I live tends to be composed of other parents with a university culture and a taste for books. Some are scientists in other fields, others are married to scientists, and all have some kind of curiosity or at least respect for the world of science; they are my models in my attempts to do public outreach (attempts that include this blog, of course).
So there's one part of balancing work and love, the brain and the heart, that I find very easy: namely, a lot of the people involved are the same.

This post is written for , whose next edition is Aug 1st at Twicetenured.

I'm a Girl!

And I Rock! Twice nominated me as

It actually happened some days ago, but this is as long as I struggled with finding a honest way to produce the above effect. Finally, with departure approaching, I gave up and just did a cut and paste from Twice's source file. I hope she doesn't mind: americans usually have a different attitude then europeans (well, than me) about copying, but hopefully it only applies to exams.

I will eventually find the time to put the comments where they belong, but in the meantime I would like to tag

Am I a woman scientist? who helps to be more realisitc as to how much better my life would have been had I chosen to work in Scandinavia. I understand that she has way too much to do, but this doesn't make her less awesome.

Sciencewoman, who is right now starting a new life as mother and tenure track faculty.

Jane, who manages to go to conferences and give talks while traveling with Baby Jane.

These are three women scientists with children whose age a in years satisfies |a|<1, i.e., they are at a time when I was exhausted all the time. Very happy, very exhausted, and very inefficient. So best wishes to all of them!

Friday, July 27, 2007

Brief rants

I'm in a tremendous hurry, so I can't rant properly now.
I first got angry at William Saletan claiming in Slate that people should dump their fat friends and get skinny ones: I'm on the skinny side myself, but I choose my friends with different criteria and so, I hope, does everybody else. The analysis he gives of the statistical data he quotes is totally nonsensical. But I often get pissed at him, so that's not surprising.
I'm much more impressed with being angry at Salon's Broadsheet, where Carol Smith advocated that it was right for a daycare center to fire a woman who didn't go to work because her husband had battered her too badly. The argument was "If her (ex) husband beats her up, she obviously is not comptetent to be a daycare center educator". Sorry? Uh? I couldn't believe my eyes. Her husbands beats her and it's her fault? And a woman says that? Angry is too weak a word. Maybe it's a good occasion to stop reading both Salon and Slate and get much more productive.
Update: it turns out women under 30 aren't allowed to choose which contraceptive method they want to use. That is, they are, so long as it's not tube tying. In fact, one can still have children after that, by IVF. The ovaries don't get removed or altered. But of course, women aren't ever really grownups, right?

It's that time of the year

Several weeks of summer vacations await me. So of course there has been a tremendous last-minute rush of things to do, especially since everyone else seems to have left at mid July. So I was the only one to answer the phone when questions arose from the administration.
Also my research students wanted extra office hours (we are talking of something like a total of three hrs/day in the last two weeks).
The paper with PD#1 and S#6 is finally ready. I am very, very happy with it, even though it is not a very great result. It is one of the few cases where I started with an idea of my own and saw it become slowly true. Of course I wouldn't have made it without my coauthors, but still it was my dream first.

I have said a bit too many times "yes" in the past few months, which means that I have agreed to write a number of non research articles of different kinds. I had the brilliant idea of planning to finish them all during the summer vacation: after all, for two weeks we are visiting my parents, and for one week we are going to a hotel with childcare.
The trouble is of course that my parents aren't willing to look after the children unaided for longer than 15 minutes, if at all, and that in previous occasions the hotel's children entertainment, while highly appreciated by C#1 and C#3, failed to satisfy the more discriminating taste of C#2. As a result, I was free to do any activity which could be performed while having on my lap 16 Kilos of child and/or running after said child who was obviously in training for some daycare level survival training.
So I will just summarize here the list of articles I have agreed to write, so that I can look at it occasionally:
  1. an expository article on a topic I know very well, but from an angle I am not familiar with;
  2. a short autobiography for a site about careers of women in science;
  3. a short article on the relation between women and science for a magazine with a mostly medical audience;
  4. another expository article on a topic I know very well, but which completely lacks readable references;
  5. a short expository article on part of my recent work;
  6. a short expository article about what I hope will become my future area of research;
  7. a very short article on the life of Emmy Noether, of which I know very little.
Due dates are basically all in September, but I should plan in finishing during the vacation, because afterwards the doctoral students will need even more time. And, I will have to seriously start nagging C#1 about her homework (last year she didn't do any... and WS isn't really very good at this kind of things, so it's my chore).

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Headache is over

I am usually a very healthy person, and become easily obnoxious when faced with even the slightest physical inconvenience. I spent the last three days with a continuous headache, resistent against the usual painkillers I have at home. I have a very vague recollection of said three days, except that the weather was gorgeous and the children enjoyed every minute of it. Of course the culprit is the sun: I will have to get a hat. Sigh. It usually takes me no longer than three days at the beach to lose or destroy one, and most of them are too small anyway.

Today I finally woke up feeling normal, and I was so giddy with relief that I celebrated by doing almost nothing so far. That is, I talked to WS about something he needs to know for his current project, to a visiting scientist who explained to me some references I overlooked, to PD#1 and S#6 about our paper and in particular said references, to S#8 whose thesis is progressing really well, to S#4 who now should start writing up what she did in a reasonable way, and to FP1 and FP2 about some technical questions on Calabi Yau threefolds. As a result, I haven't started writing anything yet today, and I still have so much to do.

Tomorrow I will be in late - the new dishwasher should arrive - and spend one more hour attending a (hopefully interesting) talk by the visiting scientist. I also have to help WS plan an expansion for his research group which would also involve me and a rather interesting chunk of research money. Next week we have a very distinguished visitor, and then I'm going to go vacationing. Three weeks. I can't wait.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Writing science versus writing mathematics

Dr. Freeride at Adventures in Ethics and Science wrote a post inspired by the book A Short Guide to Writing About Science by David Porush. She quotes from that book a list of "commandments" for scientific writers. I'm going to comment on that list from the perspective of a mathematician (the only one I have!).

  • Complex sentences are more precise and intelligent than simple ones.
  • This is definitely not true. Indeed, I have had to learn to keep it simple, since mathematical english uses much simpler structures than my native language. This is a clarity requirement, particularly needed since for most of us english is not easy.

  • Passive voice is more objective than active voice because active voice involves stating the agent, who is often a human, and humans introduce subjectivity.
  • Passive voice is never used, except in extremely straightforward contexts.

  • Descriptive prose is imprecise and unscientific because descriptions rely on adjectives which are often unquantifiable.
  • You can't possibly use descriptive prose in a statement or a proof, since mathematical language is so overpicky. On the other hand, descriptive prose is welcome in introductions, and everywhere else where you are trying to give euristic comments (which should be included!).

  • Claims about scientific fact must always be cautious; thus, using very cautious language -- squirrel language -- in scientific prose is always prudent.
  • We fine tune caution when we state conjectures (we have several synonyms, referring to different degrees of confidence). But when we prove something, there's no caution: we are proud of our achievement and we're totally sure! Occasionally mistakes are found, usually before physical publication.

  • Be as wary of innovation or taking chances in language as you are in the lab.
  • We need new words all the time! We both use standard ones with new meanings (a ring, a field and a module all have a precise definition) and invent new words (my favorite is crepant, as something for which discrepancy is zero). Finding good words to describe new concepts is one of the key duties of mathematicians.

  • Revision is unnecessary because knowledge is transparent.
  • What can I say? Some of us don't revise. They are hated by the whole community. The vast majority does.

    In the comments, someone discussed whether things might have changed since Porush published the book in 1995. Maybe, but not in mathematics. We stopped writing complex sentences around roughly 1950 (reading older stuff is a pain, in any language) and the rest is even older. The only exception is the passive voice, whose perceived difficulty is in my opinion language-dependent.

    Maybe mathematicians are really different from other scientists: e.g., the difference with physics is pretty noticeable even at the stylistic level.

    Wednesday, July 11, 2007

    In a hurry

    Today I talked to S#3, whose thesis project is unfortunately very, very slow. I told him to come back in two days. I had again a large number of meetings; I attended a talk by a very successful former graduate student of a colleague, and in the few spare moments started preparing the final version of the paper with PD#1 and S#6. I also achieved a very minor result from the point of view of visibility of my group within our department.
    And now I'm going to have dinner out to celebrate PD#1 leaving us soon for a tenure position!

    PS Lest I seem too efficient, I did skip one meeting. So I will have to read the notes tomorrow.

    Tuesday, July 10, 2007

    Fresh air, fresh ideas

    After a storm last night, the outside temperature went down a little bit. Today I feel more energetic and I actually managed to achieve something. Unfortunately no mathematical research yet.
    I discussed with S#4 some more details of her thesis project, and gave her advice about telephone interviews and the next postdoc application. I reviewed with PD#1 and S#6 our joint paper, which seems finally to be in an advanced status of completion. Hopefully it will go on the web by the end of July. I outlined to S#9 my suggestions for the next step of his thesis project. He is also working on a side project that he came up with on his own, and for which he has managed to find the relevant literature. Sounds good.
    On the service front, I had several meetings with a small but significant number of colleagues. I managed to get an extra grant for an advanced undergraduate student who wants to visit for a few months (all pro bono work, he is not in my field) and collected all the relevant information for a very important future meeting with the administration. I spent maybe three hours doing that; it seems I that no matter how much I hate administrative work, I am better at it than most of my colleagues or rather, as I suspect, they pretend to be not so good so that I do it.
    I might soon have to tackle an administrative task of greater responsibility. I feel a bit ambivalent about this. On the one hand, I already have too little time for everything I like, and administrative work can be quite time-comsuming.
    On the other hand, at least I can maybe stop complaining inanely about lousy and/or nonsensical decisions. I can do what I always wanted: work to change the system from within. And hope that the system doesn't change me instead.
    Update: I even started writing up an article on women and science. In my own language! For the general public! I'm very happy, although I know that I will repent having accepted to do this.

    Monday, July 9, 2007

    Mediterranean diet

    My children's school provides lunch, and no other food is available, nor are they allowed to bring more than a midmorning snack from home. Lunch is planned by a dietologist and supervised by the teachers; the only drink served with lunch is tap water. This is not a fancy private school, but the state one - the one that everyone complains about.
    At home we usually cook from scratch, with help from our freezer: some things are cooked in large amounts, portioned, frozen, and microwaved at need. We also eat plenty of less healthy stuff, but fresh fruit, some vegetables, and yogurt are general favorites.
    None of this is special, and indeed most other families cook more: typically, a main meal should include two cooked courses and one cooked side dish. We tend to have one cooked dish and sides that need only short or no cooking: for instance raw tomatoes and bell peppers, briefly cooked carrots and peas. Drinking tap water or bottled nonsparkling water is also standard practice here.
    Reading this article and especially the corresponding comment thread made me feel quite lucky. It even made me a bit less ashamed of my and WS's own poor cooking skills.

    Sunday, July 8, 2007

    Homeopathy for scientists

    Twice described in her blog her successful attempts to explain to some relatives why homeopathic medication can't possibly work. I am of course impressed by her ability to discuss such topics with her family - I certainly wouldn't attempt that with my parents (and successfully silence my husband, who thinks homeopathy belongs in the group with astrology and superstition). More importantly, I must add that I did use homeopathic remedies myself, and gave them to my children.

    I took homeopathic pills when I couldn't sleep because of contractions during my twin pregnancy. I never had serious problems, but in the last two months I was waking up many times per night and contractions, summer heat and double worries made it hard to fall asleep again. So every time I just took a few of my little white pills, and let them slowly melt under my tongue. I thought of my wonderful midwife who had given me the pills, and felt confident, relaxed and happy. I had made it once and would make it again. Did the pills help? Sure they did, even if they contained sugar as only scientifically detectable ingredient.

    Does this mean I think homeopathy can work? No. I'm a scientist, and I can do the maths myself. But placebo effect works, as described e.g. in a long article in Der Spiegel a few weeks ago (sorry, I seem to be unable to find an internet reference). Homeopathy can indeed cure actual health problems by placebo effect, and no scientist should be ashamed to admit that. Because the placebo effect can be measured!

    I also have another use for it, when the children have an illness for which the doctor recommends to just wait and do nothing since it will go away by itself. The following sample dialog happened several times, with different values for X and different pairs child/disease.
    X: "Have you heard how bad C#3's cough is? You should (insert random proposal)!"
    Me: "Don't worry, I am already curing him with homeopathic tablets".
    X: "Oh well, are you sure it works?"
    Me: "Well, the doctor said it could work, it doesn't have side effects, and we can still use something stronger if it doesn't work."
    X: "Ok, but don't wait too long."

    Hot summer days

    In case this wasn't clear by the lack of mathematics in my posts, I have been totally unproductive last week. I did spend a few hours explaining some technical stuff to my coauthors PD#1 and S#6, and discussing thesis progress with some of the students, but somehow this week was mostly spent planning for the future. I am almost done with planning my scientific travels next year, and have greatly restricted the choices for the remaining two weeks of summer vacation. I also bought all kinds of hopefully useful stuff: nothing at the sales (I might still find the time and energy to get a pair of shoes I can't go through the summer alternating Brikenstocks and trekking sandals, unfortunately) but home use material. Books, a cellphone for WS, a spare battery. I have also tried to buy a second iSight, and planned some much needed furniture replacement: three children shorten significantly the life span of a sofa, as I discovered.
    Yesterday and today I could have staid home and tried to catch up on the missing work. Instead, both days were spent at the beach, and this evening at a fair, eating sausages and french fries, drinking beer, and watching C#1 and #2 dance together with the grace and sense of rythm they inherited from me - i.e., none whatsoever.
    I discovered thus that C#2 is no longer afraid of the sea, and C#3 can more or less swim. They also accepted to have a cold shower on the beach before going home, and actually managed to have fun in the process. And I finally resumed my favorite hobby, sleeping on the beach. Two hours yesterday, and another two today.
    I love my family, I love summer. I couldn't have spent these two days any better.
    Hopefully tomorrow some of the energy I have accumulated will be transformed into theorems, instead of trickling out into phone calls to the electrician and travel and hotel reservations.

    Saturday, July 7, 2007

    Nasty thoughts

    In the local news today was the story of a very unlucky man who was caught by a stroke while on his boat, and died immediately. They were near to the coast, so someone heard his 6 years old son's cries for help and rescued him. My first thought was one of deep sympathy for this man and for his family, having to face such a sudden, tragic death. This was also, very appropriately, the tone used in the newspaper article.
    My second thought was unfortunately really nasty. The man who died was over sixty; what would the news have said had it been a 60+ old woman dying in front of her 6-yr old child? Would they all have resisted temptation to say "We told you it was wrong to have children when you're so old"?

    Monday, July 2, 2007

    Online quiz results are usually meaningless

    ... but maybe this result should tell me something.
    You Are 4% Girly

    Um... you're a guy, right? If not, you're the most boyish girl in the world.
    And for you, that's probably the ultimate compliment.

    Saturday, June 30, 2007

    A meme

    Twice tagged me with a simple meme, so I might be able to produce a readable post while listening to five children playing in the garden.

    • I have to post these rules before I give you the facts.
    • Each player starts with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
    • People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.
    • At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names.
    • Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged, and to read your blog.

    Random Facts

    1. I utterly dislike most of a traditional housewife's chores: cooking, cleaning, ironing, etc. I am also mildly to very bad at each of these activities. However, I really enjoy grocery shopping. I like it so much that my children think it's fun and are always eager to come with me - they are quiet and helpful, which is quite unlike they usual behaviour.
    2. I speak four languages fluently, and can read without big problems easy texts (say, mistery novels) in two or three more.
    3. As a mathematician, I am a very slow learner; as a consequence, there is a lot of classical, standard stuff that I would like to know and don't.
    4. I don't like music very much. I don't mind it, and I even have gotten used to some of it, but it remains a very minor pleasure for me. I don't dance, if I can at all avoid it.
    5. I used to be a serious soccer fan: from age 12 to 18 I had a yearly ticket for the team of my home town.
    6. I do not use computer programming in my work, and I never did. I tried once for a few months, and found it depressingly difficult.
    7. I often read while getting dressed, eating, and brushing my teeth. And in most other "spare" moments.
    8. I cut my children's hair myself.
    I read a number of blogs by people who are too busy to write often. Therefore I'll tag IP at Irrational Point Soapbox,

    Last week vs next week

    I spent last week visiting WS's family. This involved doing absolutely no work, having no internet connection, and enduring a substantial amount of bad weather. On the other hand, I really like my mother in law, and it ended up being a very pleasant, relaxing vacation week. I am always a bit sad that we are so far away, so that every visit has to be carefully planned and ends up being quite a financial investment.

    Still, I do appreciate being back to summer and wireless ADSL. The plan is as follows: today, grocery shopping and washing machine use (four so far); tomorrow, day at the beach, from monday, summer camp and back to work. I always did my best work in the summer, so I have big hopes for the next four weeks.

    In the moment, there are five children shouting on my balcony. They have just eaten cherries and watermelon, and we may soon all go to a nearby playground. I do love summer.

    Thursday, June 21, 2007

    The road not taken

    At this conference, I have had occasion to talk to some of the applicants I didn't accept for our postdoc position one month ago. They all seem to be excellent, and my feeling that I could have hired any, or all, of them and made a very good choice was even stronger. Luckily, but not surprisingly, they all have other offers.
    Plus, I talked with a couple of more senior guys, basically people my age and scientific level, who don't yet have a position and are slowly contemplating the possibility that they might never get one. It seems so sad, and so unfair. These people aren't particularly good, but neither am I. I was always very career conscious (as opposed to "eventually I'll find something") so maybe I did do a bit more than them. But to stand next to them, and know that I'm full professor, and they hope to find another position next year... academiacan be really unjust. I wonder how the other full professors deal with this.

    Old age strikes hard and unexpectedly

    Yesterday morning I pulled a muscle. While turning in the bed. I was handicapped the whole day, unable to deal with children, carry my laptop, and look leftwards. I had trouble swallowing and lifting any weight.
    Today it's better, but not ok. I just hope this is not old age, otherwise I'll start sharing Leopardi's viewpoint. Except of course he never was as old as I am now.

    Friday, June 15, 2007


    Today I picked up C#1 who had been visiting my parents. This involved a large number of hours on the train, with a shining sun and no air conditioning. I found some time to talk mathematics to S#3, who just needs to open his eyes, notice that his thesis is finished, and write it up. Hopefully this will happen soon.

    I also spent some time equarreling (quarreling via email) with a number of colleagues, that are finding the most incredible excuses why they never can take into account what I say. I find that saying "I hadn't heard of that" from a recipient of an email which comes with a date and an hour and has been cc's to about 20 other people is ridiculous. I don't know if they will ever take me seriously. But I know that I can at least force them to listen to me, and I definitely will. Maybe if I am harassing enough, they'll do what I ask in the hope that I shut up.

    Thursday, June 14, 2007

    The biggest change

    The theme chosen for this is Transitions.

    This made me think. What was the biggest change in my life? Several natural choices are available: maternity, marriage, graduation... I first thought of discussing how it was to get tenure, something that was more important to me than marriage and children. Or maybe my first research result? My first paper on a toplevel journal? I finally concluded that no, it was none of the above.

    The biggest change in my life was starting university. In particular, I remember the sunny morning when I found out I had been admitted.

    Starting university in a top-level college meant that I overnight stopped being weird and became normal. I felt welcomed in a community which accepted me as I was, and didn't demand of me things that I couldn't or wouldn't do. Suddenly the fact that I don't understand much of fashion, or am clumsy in my movements, or have a very loud voice didn't count anymore. The shape of my nose and the size of my clothes stopped having any importance. What counted was my ability and willingness to work very hard, learn a lot, and eventually give my own contribution. I started respecting myself more.

    The other key fact is that they paid me to do it. A few weeks after that sunny morning, I stopped being financially dependent on my parents: my grant included room and board, and some pocket money. Science has kept me ever since. Over the years, money was invested in me by a number of funding agencies, in my country and abroad: besides being useful in the obvious way, the money also helped me gain my parents' respect.

    Not so long before starting university, I had seen the movie "Yentl" (yes, I'm old). As I stood there, contemplating my name in the list of the admitted, a song* from that movie resonated inside me: "There are moments you remember all your life. This is one of those moments".

    *In the movie, the song celebrates the admission of a young woman (dressed as a man) to a male only school. It took me a long time to realize that it was appropriate in more than one way.

    Wednesday, June 13, 2007

    Running late

    I got to stay in the office late since I'm doing family work - i.e., booking the travel for a forthcoming trip. Now I got a desperate phone call: we just have one liter of milk left! For the whole family!

    I think when I was living with my parents, even as a child, I never saw a milk carton larger than half a liter. most of the time, there was no milk at home. I would make some deep remarks but if I do the Last Food Store will close.

    Tuesday, June 12, 2007

    Book writing

    I have now started working on a project I have considered for a long time: a reference book. I'm not doing this alone, but even the little bit that I have to do myself feels like very hard work.

    First of all, it is in some sense as hard as writing a research paper; many theorems are not proven in the literature, or they are proven but the proof is too technical and you start looking for easier proofs, or they are stated as "obvious" but turn out surprisingly difficult to write down in detail.

    Plus, there's the difficult choice of how much to include; you cannot produce a book that no one will have time to read. In the moment we are trying to achieve a compromise, carefully labeling the material to distinguish core stuff from technical details, included only so that advanced users can find the necessary references.

    Finally, you have to find meaningful examples and exercises. When you write an advanced mathematics book, it is tempting to stick to the "Definition-Lemma-Theorem-Corollary" format. But it is never a good idea. You need to give exercises, so that the reader can get hands-on experience of the new material, and examples, to connect what they have learned with what they knew before. In this particular case, it is likely that the book will be used as a reference by researchers with somewhat different backgrounds, so we need even more examples to accomodate them all.

    We (here it means "me and coauthors") have decided to actually write two books: a more elementary one, which should be ready next summer, and an advanced one, to be finished in summer 2009. I do hope that we will manage, since now all the authors are either done with childbearing or not interested in it.

    I am impressed by how some people either have an immense spare time or can write well fast. For instance, I am seriously considering telling my students to use The Unapologetic Mathematician as the main reference for category theory. He has written a number of beautiful, elegant posts, developing the subject in just the right degree of generality.

    If I tried to do anything like that it would take me ages. And without outside help, it would never be as good. On the other hand, I am apparently the only one in my bookwriting project who is able or at least willing to take a particularly elementary approach (technically, I would call it more geometry, less algebra). So I think I should insist, however hard I find it.

    Maybe I should do like See Jane Compute, and keep a sidebar with accomplished tasks. At least I would have three tasks accomplished before the deadline (namely C#1, C#2 and C#3).
    I think they are unique wih this property: everything else I do, I am always late.

    Monday, June 11, 2007

    Patriotic metablogging

    Last week I was at a conference, and I spent all the time saying hi to old friends, gossiping, and occasionally discussing maths.
    So to ease myself back into blogging, I come up with a comment post to A Natural Scientist's post about juggling parental and academic duties. If you haven't read the post, you should do so now. It contains the following, excellent sentences:

    I have never once heard a young man in my class say 'I don't know if I could have children and tenure.'
    If I can't have what I want- intellectually satisfying work AND children- I don't want to play that game.

    What can I say, but add that I was blessed enough as to be able to have it all? I did have to make some choices. I don't earn as much as I could, and neither of us is at a great university. But we can do research, and we have some time for the children. We delegate housecleaning duties and a few hours of child minding per day; the latter will diminish as the children grow older and the internet connection at home gets faster.

    A lot of this is only possible because I live in a country that is, by american standards, incredibly left wing. A country with great affordable childcare, and public schools open 8 hours a day. A country where married women keep their surname, and there is no social stigma on working mothers. I use to be very unhappy about my country, which has a lot of serious problems, but it has its good sides.

    So to all of you who are struggling with a two-body problem, all I can suggest is: look over the Atlantic! Better places exist! Once you're tenured, you can relax and get children, and then start working hard again.

    Of course, this requires two other careful choices: that of a partner willing to share with you the burden of parenting, and that of a research area where tenure arrives early on the biological clock.

    And I feel it is my duty to say, loud and proud, that I have kids. In my institution, the other female professors average .25 children each, and the male professors don't mention their offspring until said offspring starts grad school. I want students to have at least one family-friendly role model.

    As a part of that, I repeated to everybody at the conference that I was going home one day early to attend C#1's end-of-schoolyear theater play. Now I just have to print out a few photos to bring along and then I'm all set as a role model.

    Tuesday, June 5, 2007

    Redshirting? No thanks!

    The New York Times has an article about redshirting, which apparently means sending your child to school one year later than he/she should or could go. I found this via Twice's blog. The advantage, supposedly, is that older kids do better at school.

    I sometimes wonder whether the Atlantic Ocean is more than a vaste expanse of salty water, since humans seem to behave so differently on different sides. In my country, redshirting is allowed but discouraged unless there are serious reasons for it. Sending your child to school one year earlier is allowed, easily or not depending how far away from the cutoff date (dec 31) they are born.

    I did send my daughter, born january, one year earlier. She was already bored in daycare, and all her friends were going to school. She just finished second grade as very good student, and gets along very well with her schoolmates who are one year older than she is. It might help that she is also large for her age, so offers no temptation to possible physical bullies.

    I was sent to school one year earlier, and I was born 11 months after cutoff. Yes, 11 months: almost a whole year. I was basically two years younger than the oldest. The decision was taken by my parents on the suggestion of the day care teachers, who noticed that I just spent a lot of time sitting in a corner and reading (technically speaking, I didn't go earlier but skipped first grade).

    I was a top student all through my school years. At the end of highschool, 3 (including me) in a class of 14 finished with honors: all 3 were younger (the other two by 3 and 7 months after cutoff) and had skipped first grade. All had been sent ahead on daycare teachers' recommendation. The fourth student who was younger, and who got a modest mark, had been sent one year early so as to be with his cousin.

    In my very selected university (with strict admission test), about 10 to 20 per cent of all students were younger than they should have been.

    The only thing in which my experience reflects the NYT article's content is that all people mentioned were indeed not very good at sports (my daughter redshirted herself in her minibasket course!).

    I am wondering whether the difference might be related to the fact that in my country essentially all the children go to very good, very cheap state-run daycare centers for three years, and hence even younger children get prepared to the most difficult task in school: namely, sitting down and listening for more than five minutes in a row.

    Friday, June 1, 2007

    It's raining heavily...

    maybe the end-of-the-schoolyear outdoor party of C#1 tomorrow will be canceled?

    I spent some time today helping S#3 with her thesis, and I really hope she will get an offer soon. She deserves it, if not for the results for the effort she has put into this.

    I had lunch with a visiting mathematician from India. She told us about her new, exciting project: being part of a commission advising the government on how to improve education across the country, particularly among the poorest people. They have already made big progress, but some states are apparently lagging behind. I found it cool that a government would ask actual scientists for such advice, and she answered that this is because both the President and the Prime Minister are or rather have been working in academia. I did let out a very, very small sigh.

    I just spent one hour fixing the paper with PD#1 and S#6; it should be ready, if all is well, by the end of the month. I do resent that these two inexperieced people do not accept my suggestions but have their own views... except that about half the time their views are better than mine! The only thing in which I am obviously the best author is english spelling.

    I recently found out that a workshop I co-organized last year has retroactively run out of money. I will now see what I can do to fix this, so that I don't get a reputation of cheating people out of their money.

    Finally, I got an invitation for a kind-of-prestigeous conference. It's not very prestigeous, especially because obviously I have been called as a replacement for a last-minute defection, but it's not bad either.
    And next week I am away at a conference full of old friends.

    Wednesday, May 30, 2007

    Maternal duties

    When you have a child, you think the hard part will be pregnancy, or childbirth; you can even imagine that all the breastfeeding and diaper-changing might be a bit too mcuh, occasionally.
    What nobody prepares you for is the later disgusting work. This morning, I spent two hours listening to about 100 children, age 4 to 6, singing and dancing. Two of them were mine, but most of the time I couldn't actually see them; i never could here them, of course.

    Last year I didn't show up for the end of the year party, since I was in California; unfortunately, WS didn't understand that he should have gone. The twins were totally unhappy about being the only children whose parents were absent. So this year I did show up, put on feminine (drag?) clothing, and even prepared with my loving hands a large number of ham sandwiches.

    Luckily another mother (with a PhD in condensed matter physics!) had taken a day off, so she collected a large number of children and drove away with them. So I was able to work a bit in the afternoon, but I wasn't very productive. Hopefully tomorrow will be better. The paper with PD#1 and S#6 is still very far from final form, and it's urgent.

    Tuesday, May 29, 2007

    The sun shines through

    This is first of all true in the direct sense. It is even more true in the metaphorical sense. I did manage to discuss my complaints with someone who might be able to fix them, at least in part. I have also taken some decisions, such as that if an internet discussion systems is not set up soon, I will set it up myself (on livejournal or blogger or wherever). I will just invite everyone and ask the students to help me manage it.

    I spent some time talking to S#7 about her thesis, but I wasn't very helpful. then I had a skype discussion with a prospective coauthor who is currently in a different time zone. It was really cool to see each other - webcams are good.

    And now, before I go home, I will go and discuss the paper with S#6 and PD#1.

    Some parts of my job I really hate

    I spent one hour with WS discussing the precise formulation of the acknowledgements in the paper, since we want to give everybody who helped us their due, but at the same time keep our merits. I then spent another hour with PD#1 and S#6 getting suggestion for a graduate school that I will possibly be giving next year and planning ahead a longer activity for the summer of 2009.
    And now I have to go to an administrative meeting, which will be complete waste of time, but if I don't show up my already slim chances of getting a hire in my field will vanish utterly.

    Monday, May 28, 2007

    Real life commitments

    I spent one week working on a book. A book of which I am supposedly a coauthor, that is. It should take, in my expectations, about one year to finish, if I can commit to it. I had the relevant coauthor, NeCo, visiting. He's a really nice person, only very very nervous. We made a lot of progress, plus now he set-up my internet connection at home.

    I also gave to lectures at a nearby university, which was fun; attended a one day meeting with a lot of people I know well but hadn't seen in a long time, which was even more fun. And now, the planning for the summer is almost complete.. no wonder I didn't have time to update the blog.

    On a different topic, the paper with WS got a bit delayed, but it should be up and running any minute now.

    Tuesday, May 15, 2007

    Back home

    I wouldn't have thought that it would take me 16 hours to go home, but life is full of surprises. It's great to be with the children again. I miss them in some kind of animal way, so that when we see each other more than talking we spend a lot of time just touching each other - a typical scenario is for me to sit down with C#3 on my lap, C#2 on my shoulders, and C#1 sitting nearby while we take turn scratching each other's back.

    Monday I spent most of the time talking to students, with some of them finally making progress. WS and I also put the final touch to our joint paper and sent it off to a number of selected colleagues for a preliminary opinion, before posting it on the web.
    PD#1 is interviewing; when he comes back I think our joint work will get in final form.

    Tuesday was again busy (S#4, PD#2) and choosing PD#3. The applicants were really good, to bad we have only one grant and not five or six. This morning, students again. I now chased S#9 out so that I can go to lunch.

    Friday, May 11, 2007

    It's not an end, it's a beginning

    My stay at this research institute is coming to its end. Having a month with nothing to worry about but mathematics was an incredible boost: my paper with WS is essentially ready, and in my opinion much better than it was a month ago; my paper with PD#1 and S#6 is also morally ready, in that all significant ideas are now at our fingertips, and I expect it to go online by the end of the month; and despite occasional friction, I did learn a lot about the new subject that UnCo finds so interesting.

    Still, I'm happy at the idea of going back to my family. I don't miss them much at the beginning (in fact, the feeling of freedom from responsibility is almost intoxicating) but as the days, and in this case the weeks, go by, I really want to be home.

    Today I had so many last-minute preparations to do that I decided to skip a talk this afternoon - it was anyway more of a social event than a scientific one. I am essentially packed now, and tomorrow at this time I will be home.

    Thursday, May 10, 2007

    Working again

    This morning we had to talks, which were both extremely interesting for me. The first is directly in the field I want since a couple of years to start working in, and which is the specialty of PD#2. I heard a talk by one of the experts, which however appears to have missed a key development (=no serious concurrence). I also heard the comment of another expert, who on the other hand seems to be even more of a let's-go-abstract-and-general person than UnCo, and hence again is not likely to duplicate anything I do. Well, well.

    The second talk was in my usual research field; I personally know all the four authors, and have actually been staying with two of them at some point in the past. It felt very satisfactory to sit through a talk, understand everything, guess how the argument was going to go on, and even be able to suggest an improvement in presentation. It is also an important result, and now I have understood the idea of the proof and feel confident that I can produce a similar result if need be.

    This afternoon I worked again on the supposedly finished paper with WS. In the end we decided to add some stuff to the last chapter, so that it is set-up as general as is natural, and we can go on from there. Technically, we have to pass from schemes to DM stacks, and while the extension is morally obvious, there are a number of delicate technical details that have to be taken care of. But still, it's a joy to write.

    UnCo is still feeling sick; he stayed home the whole day yesterday, and today showed up at noon thinking that the talks would be in the afternoon, as they usually are, and discovered to his dismay that he had actually missed both of them. I can now hear him laughing, so I suspect that while he's supposed to finish editing our paper, he's actually reading some funny website.

    Wednesday, May 9, 2007


    Yesterday I spent three hours explaining some results of mine and UnCo to anothe visiting professor here. Funnily enough, it was precisely the same stuff UnCo had explained last thursday. At least I'm not the only one who finds it hard to figure out what he's talking about. In the afternoon I sat through another talk of UnCo, which was really bad. Apparently he had been feeling very sick and didn't prepare at all. The secondo talk was really great, though.

    This morning I overslept, and spent most of my afternoon trying to concentrate; when I noticed it wasn't working, I did a little of overdue email work. And not even a lot of that.

    Two noteworthy links (yes, I did spend time idling online). One is about high-heeled shoes, and why they are bad for your feet. As if this wasn't obvious to everyone who had had the occasion to try them on. The otheris a fantastic technical description about what the so-called partial birth abortion is good for. Not to kill a beautiful, healthy fetus who has the bad luck to sit in the belly of a heartless woman, but to give a woman who carries a doomed, or possibly dead, fetus, and who may or may not have serious health problems herself, to give end the pregnancy with the least possible damage to her own body. The idea that the only reasonable alternative is to dismember the fetus, so that the mother can't possibly hold it afterwards, is really appalling me.

    Monday, May 7, 2007

    Mother's day is approaching

    I am laughing alone in front of my computer. I just found The Onion's Mother's Day edition. After careful perusal, I think my favorite is the women's history timeline, especially the last point. It reminds me that I need to schedule a Pap test soon.

    WS sent back the final version of the paper with a few changes. It still needs some very minor fixing, but it's really, really done. Wow.

    I spent most of the day working on the project with UnCo, partially with him but mostly on my own. We did make some progress, not unrelated to my valiant effort to keep everything I know in a nicely readable file. UnCo is really smart, but occasionally the combination of "Don't bother to check that, I did that already" and "No, it appears I can't find the correct sheet of paper" can go on my nerves.

    I also did non-research work, discussing whether a certain paper should at all be considered for a prestigious journal, and wrote a recommendation letter for a brilliant woman who's trying to get her first tenure position (with the almost usual two-body problem).

    Before lunch I had the occasion to talk with the director of the research institute where I am visiting. I politely inquired why there was no information on their website about schools/Kindergartens/daycare centers in the area, to help parents planning a trip (this place usually ships the first invitation to a program three years ahead - I got mine with more than a year to spare). He answered courteously that they had considered it, but it was all so complicated that they decided to forget about it.

    I asked whether he was aware that in this way the institute de facto discriminates against women scientists, since they are much more likely then men not to have a stay-at-home spouse who could invest a lot of time in searching stuff on the internet. I pointed out that adding a few links to the website of schools in the area and/or schools that offer bilingual programs didn't seem to require much effort. He said that he was sorry but after serious consideration they had decided that it was so much of a hassle to deal with kids that it really wasn't worth the secretary's time.

    I am just wondering whether I should send a letter about this to him, and cc all the private organization which fund this place. With a link to Princeton, maybe. Where after all they do take women seriously.

    Sunday, May 6, 2007

    Dinner conversation

    The main argument of yesterday's conversation seems to me worth of a separate post, if nothing else because I think it was some remark of mine on this topic that induced the two senior colleagues in question to invite me to join them for dinner.

    Mathematics is in one significant respect very different from most other scientific subjects: namely, most of the research done in the past decades is still correct and applicable. However, mathematical fashion changes, and the language of mathematics moves on: so, in time a natural selection occurs, and results that are perceived as important get incorporated in standard reference books, and the rest gets forgotten and sleeps in many a library shelf. In particular, history tends to be obliterated, and young people know definitions and theorems without knowing who first introduced or proved them.

    However, in the period 1960-1970 my field had an incredible change of pace; tons of new ideas where introduced at a speed that most researchers of the time, not to mention a publishing system based on typewriters, had big problems keeping pace with. I am not a historian of science, but my impression at 40 years of distance was that the key point in this gargantuan enterprise was one person: Alexander Grothendieck. His ideas have changed the face of algebraic geometry as we know it, and lie at the base of many current famous results, most notably Fermat's last theorem.

    My comment was that a large part of the work done in those years seems to have been forgotten and not passed on to the younger generations as it should have. I started thinking about this when Faltings, at the beginning of a course on algebraic stacks, explained that stacks were as important as schemes, but the generation that had had to digest schemes had refused to deal with stacks as well. In the same weeks, I was working my way through as much as I could understand (i.e., not much) of Grothendieck's mathematical testament, Récoltes et Semailles. There he expresses precisely the same viewpoint, namely that a lot of his work has been factually hidden from the eyes of the average working mathematician.

    Whether this is due to someone's agenda (Grothendieck makes quite a few high-level names, which has made Récoltes et Semailles unpublishable) or it just happened, it is definitely time to go back, and retrace our steps. An impressive result in this direction is the re-edition of SGA1 and SGA 2 by the Société Mathématique de France; it is a LaTeX typeset and corrected version of some fundamental, typewritten notes from the early sixties, the kind of thing that an old enough library would have, but was difficult to get for private use. Now it is affordable to everyone (especially members of the SMF).

    What I think is very significant is the way the typesetting was done: namely, a number of mathematicians from all over the world volunteered hours and hours of work to input, and correct the .tex file. It is, literally speaking, a labour of love.

    My point yesterday was that we need more of this, both in the sense of re-editing (and making available in electronic form) old books, and also in the sense of translating the old books in modern mathematical language, so that everybody can read them. We should use the possibilities of the new media to produce a document which is readable at different levels; a short one for the experts, but one where one can just click on an unfamiliar name to read its definition, and on a step of the proof to find a more detailed version, including the details known to the experts.

    And most of this has to be labor of love; but if we want it to happen, we have to start giving at least some credit to people who do the work. I am thinking of all the mathematicians who already are tenured, and who therefore are not any more under desperate pressure to publish. It shouldn't look like a hole in the cv if in one given year you have no paper but a beautiful edition/exposition of old, inaccessible stuff.

    Let me finish with a beautiful sentence I heard at lunch not very many days ago by a colleague who is a bit older than me: "I could of course keep writing paper after paper. But there is so much beautiful mathematics out there that I don't know yet, and I want to read at least some of it before I die". Me too.

    Paper finished!

    First, the big news: in the afternoon I fixed the paper with WS! It is now essentially ready, and we might start to informally circulate it next week. Our first joint paper after the twins... how romantic. We definitely should dedicate it to them, as we did for the corresponding paper after the birth of C#1. Feel free to imagine me dancing, shouting, and drinking (the drinking part hasn't yet become reality, but I'll work on it later in the day).

    Yesterday I had dinner with two much older colleagues. In fact, each of them is old enough to be my father. It was a very pleasant dinner, with a lot of historical and philosophical discussions. I hope I will stay as smart as I grow old. It also gave me back the feeling of being a young girl, which I had otherwise lost long ago.

    This morning I didn't do maths. First I cleaned up my flat: I am by nature a total slob, but it was so dirty it started to bother me. As a reward for doing a good deed, I did see a hare from a very short distance. The last time I saw a hare was here, on my previous visit. I haven't seen any hare otherwise in my life.

    Between yesterday and lunchtime I finished reading the four books I started three days ago: two lent by UnCo, and two bought by me in the local language, which I can read although not speak. It was really great. I love reading, and if books were alcohol I would have become a member of AA before I turned 5. Plus, the two books in the local language I'll read again and again, so that I can learn more words and expressions. The woman at the local bookstore gave me really good advice.

    And then I cleared up for UnCo a misconception he had about an exact sequence. Tensor products are nasty things, and the notation we use is ambiguous and potentially confusing. Actually, it is standard since about four decades, so I think the correct viewpoint is that it's UnCo that gets easily confused, but I didn't tell him that.

    Saturday, May 5, 2007

    How I learned algebraic topology

    Some people can learn out of books. This is actually a good option if you want to learn algebraic topology nowadays; there's plenty of good books, some even in my native language, and some can be downloaded for free (legally!).
    But I'm not good at studying on my own, so I took a course in my second undergraduate year. The course was attended by a grand total of two students, and none of my friends took it. It turned out to be a fabulous course. The professor, undaunted by the paucity of the audience, gave a series of beautiful lectures, covered a lot of material some of which wasn't even published yet, and gave us a huge amount of handwritten notes to support the reference textbooks.

    Algebraic topology is a strange beast. In a sense, it is extremely intuitive: it gives precise meaning to statements like "a donut has one hole, but a pretzel has three" and allows you to generalize such statements to objects you can't visualize at all. However, when you seriously want to study it, you discover you need a lot of technical tools, and it's easy to loose the intuitive aspects. The handwritten notes we were given were largely hand drawn; it's thanks to them that I kept my intuition alive all that year, and a combination of that and of differential topology has become a substantial part of the subtly warped bag of mathematical tools that allow me sometimes to see more, or differently, than many more talented and informed colleagues.

    Most of all, I was fascinated by the professor herself. She kept her hair short, clean but untidy, wore baggy jeans and a poncho, and didn't try to hide either the first few gray hair or a reasonably substantial moustache. She was tall, strong, loud, and wore thick nonfashionable glasses. She brought to the course an incredible enthousiasm, and brought us so far that we each decided to read a piece of more advanced stuff on our own instead of the usual question-and-answers exam. In my case, I studied a whole book. I didn't understand it very well, and the professor was not terribly impressed. She still gave me a top mark, although when she saw that I had top marks in all the mathematics exams, she jokingly regretted having done so.

    The following summer, I sat down with a helpful, older student to figure out whom I should choose as thesis advisor. I knew: I wanted her, the woman who looked like me, the person who could bring homological algebra to life. Plus, she was working on an exciting project for a concrete description of something exotic called cohomology. But my friend discouraged me: he said that I should choose instead my future advisor, who was a rising star in a field which is popular in my country, while algebraic topology professors are few and far apart. Plus, he added, the professor I so liked had been promoted and was leaving anyway.

    The advice was completely correct. My advisor and I have been a fantastic match, and the algebraic topology professor left mathematical research for didactic of mathematics; she also never came back to my alma mater, and I have seen her once only since, about ten years ago. As for the situation in my country, in each of the three universities where I have worked so far I have been the algebraic topology reference person, based on that one lonely course so many years ago, because most people didn't even know as much.

    Besides teaching me a fantastic amount of mathematics, she taught me that I didn't have to look like my mother told me all women should look like; that I could choose to wear comfortable rational clothes, and derive intense pleasure from a job where nobody cared how I looked like. Even more importantly, she taught me that it is not important how many people are listening to you: what counts is that you always do your best.

    I didn't understand all of this immediately, and I would certainly not have been able to put it into words at the time. I kept wearing makeup, and skirts, and uncomfortable shoes. But the she has helped me become the myself that I am today. And my first paper with WS has two main theorems, and not one, because I knew enough hands-on algebraic topology (who knows, maybe it even helped me impress WS?).

    I wouldn't say my Algebraic Topology professor ever felt like a mother to me. She actually didn't look motherly at all, despite a very feminine body that the poncho disguised but became pretty obvious with the arrival of summer. But when I read that next month's topic is mothers and others, women who have influenced us along the way, I immediately thought of her.