“There is Nothing New to Be Discovered . . . “

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.[1]

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.[2]

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.

[1] 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.
[2] 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.


  1. Oh, spare me. You’re in a STEM field, and therefore officially in the club of Disciplines That Everyone Knows Are Valuable. Has the governor announced that the state needs no more graduates in your field? Has anyone at your university attempted to close your department? Walk over and talk to your colleagues in history or English some time. They could probably tell you some stories.

  2. WVS, MGK may not empathize, but as faculty in a mathematics department I certainly do. I’ll never forget my father asking me if topology was about surveying (I had described it as advanced geometry). As a good son, I worked hard to not laugh out loud. In considering the usual traits of those in my hall (literally minded, peculiar, stubborn, etc.), I am stumped as to why we Mormons have not produced a world-renowned mathematician. Our culture would seem to be a breeding ground for mathematicians, and yet… I’ve thought along the lines of your value argument; maybe that’s the reason.

    MGK, we (or I) certainly understand that your field’s professional problems are of another order of magnitude, but I would guess you don’t often get confused for a tour guide (history) or proofreader (English) very often. Is this assumption wrong?

  3. Used to Know How to do Calculus says:

    I’m a degreed engineer and attorney. I’m the butt of just about every joke in Sunday School and so forth. But I’m the guy people call when they want Johnny, Jr. out of jail or want to figure out a way to hold onto the family’s inheritance. About the only time my engineering comes into play is when we’re moving someone. I am pretty good at packing things into a U-Haul!

  4. “I am pretty good at packing things into a U-Haul!”

    Working at UPS during college did that for me without having to study engineering.

    Thank you, UPS.

  5. J. Stapley says:

    Having grown-up in a house of science (and art, mind you), my thoughts were that the sciences were noble and thoroughly Mormon. As you note, however, there are certain trades that seem to correlate well with certain niches in the church.

  6. Brian, there are a few world famous types, but not really outside the discipline (I’m thinking, Jim Cannon or Tom Hales). As to problems in the humanities, no question bad things are happening with funding and adjuncts, etc., etc. As far as STEM goes, the M part is essentially in service of the STE. It’s hard to get appropriations committees to see the value of M beyond the training of primary and secondary students or at the collegiate level, engineers, physicists, chemists, and so on.

  7. WVS, yes, I’m talking along the lines of someone known to non-mathematicians (even if by vague familiarity of name), like von Neumann or Hilbert. Alas, it appears that ship has not yet come in.

  8. Artists, like mathematicians, can be engaged in a search for esoteric truths in similar ways, and are sometimes mocked, misunderstood, and maligned in similar experiences. Even among other artists. (Especially among other artists.) The difference is, credentials for artists aren’t nearly so standardized (you can’t get a meaningful PhD in art) and everyone with a pair of working eyes deems themself a critic.

    Also, I pack a killer U-Haul.

  9. Senile Old Fart says:

    Your profession may seem esoteric to some, but at least they spare you the opprobrium reserved for sellers of used cars, insurance, or real estate. Or multi-level marketers.

  10. WVS, it would seem that the set of professions is not well-ordered, because everyone has it worse than everyone else.

  11. Well ordered FTW.

  12. Ah yes, the ol’ debate between industry and research, the forever struggle between dreams and practicality.

  13. How much of a debate is it, really? Maybe a personal one, i.e. will a particular individual find greater reward in industrial or academic pursuits, but otherwise it seems pretty clear that virtually all technological breakthroughs are brought about by advances in basic research. This isn’t to say it’s a one-to-one relationship–of course not every academic paper published leads to a new gadget–but overall, industry and academia seem to be complementary.

  14. It could be worse–the responses to “German literature” are either stunned silence or weak jokes about a guy who makes a bargain with the devil and turns into a bug… ;)

  15. In the pure vs. applied arena, I suppose I wasn’t talking *that* applied. (grin)

  16. Kristine, them’s fightin’ words gal.

  17. Mormons need a LOT more punk rock.

  18. I would just say, “the same way people are doing research on how biology and the human body work, I’m doing research on mathematics”