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.

Last Thursday

Last Thursday was a really good day mathematically. We had three talks. The first one was in the morning, by UnCo, about work which is partially joint with me. UnCo showed up late (saying that he's not a morning person is a vigorous understatement) and went 15 minutes overtime, but he gave a really great talk. I'm lucky at being able to learn from him.
The second one I gave, about joint work with PD#1 and S#7. The first afternoon talk is always a problem, since part of the audience (particularly mature, portly gentlemen) has a tendency to nap. Still, it was well received and got pleasant and useful feedback.
The third was by my student, and that led to a question by one of the mature portly gentlemen who, no doubt refreshed by the previous nap, alerted me to a very important 40-years old reference I had missed.

To cap the day, UnCo and I went for a pleasant long walk, had dinner together, and talked about Gott und die Welt until midnight, while finishing a well-deserved bottle of French wine. There are days when I really love my job.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

A room of one's own

I don't easily cry. In particular, I never cry at movies, and I almost never cry at books. There is one conspicuous exception to this, though. When I arrive at this sentence in Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own I always feel my eyes getting moist:
Therefore I would ask you to write all kinds of books, hesitating at no subject however trivial or however vast. By hook or by crook, I hope that you will possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream. For I am by no means confining you to fiction. If you would please me—and there are thousands like me—you would write books of travel and adventure, and research and scholarship, and history and biography, and criticism and philosophy and science.
I was a bit disappointed that it wasn't in the selection from the book published in the Guardian today. For those who haven't read it yet, do read it. Not that sentence only, which is much lamer out of context, and not the Guardian's selection, but the whole book.

Like the Guardian editors, I find it impressive how modern Woolf's feminist essays have stayed, even after a century of such big changes in the relationship among the sexes. I will reserve a list of detailed comparisons between Three Guineas and the department I work in for a later rant.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Laboring Day

I celebrated Labor Day by working very hard the whole day. I met my student S#4 this morning, than I worked on the joint project with PD#1 and S#6, and
then I spent the afternoon discussing PDE's with UnCo. Turns out he couldn't solve a system of them because he was looking for a polynomial solution and the answer was an exponential function.

I cooked myself a decent dinner, and after another short chat with UnCo I watched a very good Kaurismaki movie, about a man who has forgotten his name and everything else. I like Kaurismaki, but this was the first time I saw a movie of his in the original finnish language. I am proud to say that I had no trouble reading the swedish subtitles.

C#3 is fine and healthy, it appears. So all is well that ends well. And tomorrow I will work hard again.

News from the homefront

By choosing this month to be away, I cleverly skipped being at home during a 4-day school vacation, caused by May 1st being a Tuesday. Yesterday morning WS called to say that C#3 had a fever. Apparently he has a cough, didn't sleep well in the night, and in the morning was very hot and very sluggish. What should he do, asked WS?
Of course the answer is easy: nothing. Just wait and see, unless the fever rises. After lunch the fever was gotten a bit higher, so C#3 got some paracetamol. Thirty minutes later, the fever was gone. He played all afternoon, and around dinner time announced that he would like some sausages. I haven't yet heard from them this morning, but if that was the end of the illness, WS is really lucky.

La notte porta consiglio

Roughly translated: sleeping over your problems helps you find a solution. Yesterday I sent to my young coauthors PD#1 and S#7 a severely revised version of our joint work. In the afternoon we had a joint skype phone call about it, and PD#1 made a few very good points about the exposition. And this morning I finally figured out what he meant, and also what we have to do so that the paper becomes more readable. Unfortunately, it involves a substantial amount of rewriting.

Yesterday I also decided that if I want to be any use in my current collaboration with UnCo, I will seriously learn to need some of the background material. Unfortunately, the relevant book is not in the library here, and even if I were to buy it immediately it might take at least one week and possibly much more until I get it. So I decided to buy it, have it shipped to my home address, and in the meantime I xeroxed the first few pages. I also decided to buy myself a new notebook and a couple of pretty pens to take notes with, but today being May 1st I will have to wait until tomorrow for that. I like the idea of going back to being a student; after all, that's something I can do much better than being a professor, and I had only such a short time of it.

Yesterday I also spent one hour with S#4 discussing his thesis project, and we have another appointment today. He certainly works hard, but is still proceeding very, very slowly. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for him.