The truth about mathematics.

January 5, 2009

I often read paraphrases of one or other of Gödel’s theorems that talk about true, unprovable statements. I’ve said before that I’m a formalist of sorts. Talk of undecidable statements in a system being true gives me headaches. And I’m an analyst so I work in ZFC. If I say “statement X is true” I’m telling you that there exists a proof of statement X in ZFC. If you ask me if I think the continuum hypothesis is true, I’ll explain to you that it’s known to be undecidable. If you tell me you know it’s undecidable but still want to know if I think it’s true, I’ll look at you as if you asked me what colour integrity is.
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Not really pseudomaths at SB

January 5, 2009

Rebecca Skloot has replied to my comment on her blog in a way that makes me feel like she is, in fact, one of the good guys. She seems to have genuinely believed that the formula seller in question was really trying to make people think about body image and not just taking money to try to get newspaper space for the company that hired him while using his credentials to make people think it was “real” science. I think she is wrong to trust him on this, but as I understand this sort of scam is mostly a British thing so she would reasonably be less sensitive to it.

Also if it is just a one off bit of silliness in a magazine it is quite different to every week in the news pages of the dailys.

Just for kicks here is a classic of the PR-driven equation-for-X genre

EDIT: Actually Skloot’s further comment is even more interesting. She says the researcher in question was very open about the PR-ness and claimed to be taking advantage of the situation to make a point of his own.

Pseudomathematics sympathiser at ScienceBlogs?

January 5, 2009

EDIT: I maybe went off half-cocked with this. See the following post./EDIT

I’m worried about Culture Dish. In her welcome message newest member of the SciBorg, Rebecca Skloot, links to an article she wrote entitled Tushology, which is about a Manchester Met professor’s mathematical equation for the perfect human arse.

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Clear but inelegant writing of maths – should I care?

January 2, 2009

Happy New Year, folks.

I’m (still) editing a paper that is mostly stuff from my PhD and I saw the following phrase, which I had forgotten writing:

… equivalence classes with respect to equivalence.

UGH! That’s not nice, is it? The equivalence relation is established (although not quite unanimously so) under the name “equivalence” in this context. Also there is another equivalence relation that I will be using on the same class of objects (so can’t refer to “the equivalence class” without ambiguity).

The question is, should I care? It’s perfectly clear. People don’t read maths papers for the joy of the prose (although very occasionally it is a nice extra). Does this sort of thing matter?

Songs for homesick Britons, part 2 of n

December 26, 2008

Ugh. Couldn’t go home for Christmas this year (nice reasons). Feeling kind of homesick. Let’s fix that with a bumper holiday pack of YouTube goodness from the Smiths, Massive Attack, the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl.
Videos after the jump. Read the rest of this entry »

Happy relavent holiday

December 23, 2008

The day before last was (except on a set of measure zero) either the summer or the winter solstice on Earth and around this time there are all sorts of holiday celebrations. Happy whichever ones you are marking.

The desire to impose order on the universe – punk rock version

December 17, 2008

All talk at Ars Math over whether mathematics appeals to a desire to impose order on our existence made me think of “Where Next Columbus” by Crass. Video below the jump. Read the rest of this entry »

Joel Feinstein is blogging

December 13, 2008

Hey look! Joel Feinstein, who was my PhD supervisor, has a blog on WordPress. He briefly had it on Blogger, but I explained to him how foolish that was.
He’s using it to write about undergraduate level teaching, which he does very clearly and readably with lots of good examples of how to present complicated, abstract concepts in a way that students can absorb.

Reasonable effectiveness

December 12, 2008

In which, without lapse into solipsism, your correspondent defends mathematical formalism in the face of deep connections between mathematics and the physical universe.

In response to a comment of mine at Ars Math the unapologetic John Armstrong challenges me thus:

So, Matt, you’re a formalist? You seem to have a similar underlying belief that mathematics is a formal system, and a product of the activities of human minds (brains).

Not to claim a Platonic position here, but I challenge you with the same response as I’d give to a hardcore formalist: how do you explain the “unreasonable effectiveness” of mathematics in the physical sciences? Why should the output of human brains have anything to do with physical law, and how is it that truly well-formed sciences are invariably expressed in mathematics? Escapes into radical solipsism will be discarded as the jokes they are.

My response is after the jump.
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On the restoration of independence.

December 1, 2008

It’s a holiday in these parts because of replacing a Spanish/Austrian king with a local one a while back. I have nothing interesting to say about this holiday, but it seemed serendipitous that in my feed reader today was this article by Ben Webster at The Secret Blogging Seminar which deals with the El Naschie fail and discusses of how mathematicians might cast off (or at least loosen) the shackles of Elsevier (and by extension big commercial publishers generally).

For me the best bit was this:

A journal is only as good as its editorial board. Affiliation with the commercial publisher, a big price tag, good production values, indexing in the Web of Knowledge(TM), all of these are essentially meaningless.

So, what is it with editorial boards? Given that good journals (those with good boards) are owned by ElSpringier it’s clear enough why we mere authors benefit from submitting there, but what do the editors think they are gaining. Clearly, (with a couple of exceptions like Topology and K-Theory) editorial boards seem to think they do have something to gain by working for Elsevier and Springer. They do after all keep doing it, rather than walking out and starting a new journal. I’ve been wondering lately what anyone could think the benefits are for editors. The best I can come up with is that:
1) the publishers own the title (hence new periodicals called Journal of Topology and Journal of K-Theory) and
2) while editors that quit on mass will take with the reputation of their journal any formal measures of this reputation (such as the Impact Factor) will belong to the title.

This presumably makes a dent on the more bureaucratic types of assessment of the editors’ work (I’m not actually sure about this but I think being editor of a “prestigious” journal should be worth a few points) and also means authors gain less in such assessments by publishing there and so may not be as keen to submit.

If point 2 in the above is a big factor it seems fixable by a small adjustment to the way things like Impact Factor and eigenfactor are calculated – simply declare that if a new journal has all the editors of the old it is the same journal for the purposes of crunching the numbers. Maybe then there would be more editorial walkouts. On the other hand it seems so small an advantage that I can’t believe it is the real reason. Are editors of academic journals (people general held to be intelligent) just letting the big publishers make a profit at their expense for no reason at all?

Incidentally, if the editors of Journal of Functional Analysis happen to be reading this, I would really appreciate if you could quit Elsevier and regroup as Journal of Journal of Functional Analysis. I’m going to submit stuff to you any way, but I’ll feel bad about it.