Ben F’s recent guest post on faith and science had an image of Lord Kelvin subtitled by his infamous prediction regarding science. That quote made me think of experiences with people in my own life. When I was a grad student, my father loved to introduce me as a budding mathematician to whoever we happened to meet in our occasional travels together. At the time, it generated dual sets of feelings. One set revolved around the fact that he had some pride in what I was doing, though he didn’t have any understanding of what exactly that was. The other set was encompassed by a straight-forward cringeyness.
The latter feeling was driven by experience: the nearly inevitable responses to my father’s proud declaration can be categorized as follows (I’m only slightly exaggerating here and there in favor of summary):
1. Oh, I took algebra in high school. You must study calculus.
2. I hate math. Good thing somebody likes it, otherwise who would write those tax forms?
3. Oh. What do you do? Study those geometry proofs?
4. So will you teach high school when you’re done? I have a cousin who teaches math at Jordan Middle School.
5. So you’re going to be an engineer?
6. Einstein was a great one, wasn’t he?
And variations on these themes.
My father always expected some response from me and in the beginning, I actually tried to explain a bit of what I was studying, say. But within 5 seconds or so, eyes would glaze and gaze would falter. Over time I gradually became a little cynical in my comments, throwing out some sarcasm that fortunately fell on deaf ears. As my own career evolved away from operator theory, functional analysis and partial differential equations, to biological applications, I’ve become the life of home teacher visits, commenting on the nasty ways cancer can spread and how I disinterestedly model the deaths of human beings. Or how Dictyostelium discoideum moves along.
I get that most people can’t conceive of what research mathematicians do. (The fact is that most mathematicians don’t know what many other mathematicians do beyond broad categories.) And sometimes there’s a little righteous indignation about tax dollars supporting what some regard as jousting with mental Rubik’s cubes or something.
Given our Mormon heritage about pursuing truth, I’ve always felt that what I was doing professionally was at least peripherally justified by my religion. All truth, etc., etc., etc. But there are value-threads in that truth narrative at least according to some I’ve heard. And those threads seem to valorize certain vocations. Is this so, do you think? I mean, some have pointed to the general authority profile as an illustration of most-valued-résumé.
 Within the discipline people are often classed as “applied” mathematicians or “pure” mathematicians. The distinctions are often politically motivated and just as often, dubious. I won’t air laundry further.
 My mother, God rest her soul, was there. With some frequency, she wanted to know when I was going to quit marking time and get on with a job at my brother’s semi-trailer repair business. Or at least get a government accounting job. I imagine plenty of academics share such experiences.