Are you a mathematician?
‘Are you a mathematician?’ If you were asked this question how would you answer?
But first some context. In my role as Deputy Chair of the JMC I had the great pleasure of being invited to attend the London Mathematical Society (LMS) annual dinner last Friday. This was the first one for two years and, for many attendees, myself included, the first big face-to-face event any of us had been to since March 2020 or earlier. I can honestly say this was the highlight of my year. Before going I joined remotely via Zoom and listened to two brilliant talks; one from Professor Jens Marklof from Bristol and the other from the outgoing LMS president Professor Jon Keating from Oxford. I then made my way across London to join them and many others at Goodenough College.
I had forgotten how starved I had been of in-person human interaction. At first I found the sheer volume of people a tad overwhelming. I also recognised people but couldn’t remember names – so many people now sported beards whereas they hadn’t two years ago. But then seeing Nira Chamberlain and his delightful wife Jacqueline broke the ice. I saw other people I haven’t seen in person for several years like Peter Clarkson and Cathy Hobbs and at dinner Gavin Blackett from the OR Society.
Conversation during the meal was refreshing and stimulating but on two occasions during the meal I was asked this question: ‘Are you a mathematician?’ I faltered. I panicked. My eyes flickered nervously around the room where I saw all these amazing august and revered pure mathematicians who research abstract topics that almost no one else on the planet can understand, and I couldn’t see how I could answer ‘yes’. After a pause long enough to be embarrassing I said ‘well I have a maths degree’.
I woke up the next morning and reflected on this. How lame, how pathetic! I have been telling my undergraduate maths students for years ‘YOU ARE A MATHEMATICIAN AND DON’T LET ANYONE ELSE TELL YOU OTHERWISE’. And yet, when I was asked the question, I as good as denied it. I felt like Peter must have felt when he heard the cockerel crow.
Dammit (excuse me but I feel strongly) I am a mathematician. Correct, I am not actively engaged in pure mathematics research but I obtained my degree when I was 40 (already too old to be a contender for the coveted Fields Medal) and I went into research in computational mathematics. I still hanker for days when I can go back to thinking about prime numbers, the Riemann hypothesis or the delights of group theory but my day job as a university manager doesn’t allow me time to do this.
Nevertheless I am a mathematician. Yes, it’s easy to say in my kitchen at home with only my two bemused cats looking on. It’s easy to say to my grown-up kids (who don’t really care how I describe myself) but it’s not easy to say at a mathematical dinner. Am I the only one who finds this? Is it a female thing, a lack of confidence, a type of imposter phenomenon? I don’t have the answer – do you?