Thursday, February 25, 2010

Oral examinations

In Sydney we had only written examinations, so it has been an interesting experience to conduct oral exams. One gets to know the students better. It is possible to follow a line of questioning. Perhaps the results are not so objective: it is very difficult to have a marking scheme and give an evaluation to three decimal places. Usually however after 5 minutes one has a very good idea of the ability and preparation of the student.

Two comments after this month's exams.

One good student came prepared to tell me one of my theorems was mistaken. He had checked in two different ways. It took 15 minutes to follow his calculations and find that he had made a trivial copying error which vitiated both calculation. He got a very good result.

I asked the mathematics students what careers they wanted: the females had in mind to be high school teachers, and the males geniuses.

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"A remarkable book"

That is a quote from John Nash about a book I looked at recently - Prime Obsession by John Derbyshire.

On page (ix) he states the Riemann hypothesis, that the non-trivial zeros of the zeta function have real part one half.

It is not till page 146 that he describes how to calculate any value of zeta(z) with real part of z less than 1.

But the most remarkable thing about the book is that I don't see (in my superficial reading) a description of how one would calculate even one non-trivial zero of the zeta function.

I must be mistaken, and am happy to be corrected.


Tuesday, February 23, 2010


A collection of small absurdities.

Private theft: Yesterday while I was walking back from lunch I noticed a youth unscrewing the antenna from a car in a somewhat furtive fashion. I enquired if he was stealing the antenna, and he claimed he actually knew the owner of the car (thus verifying that it was not his). There were also some young people across the road laughing (probably the whole thing was harmless), however I pretended to photograph the situation with my mobile phone. The immediate Italian reaction was that I was violating their privacy

Cheating: There is a fair bit of cheating in Italian universities. A student just submitted to me a program of which, he insisted, he had written every symbol. He was unable to explain the program. Worse, the problem was to modify a program which I had written so that 95% of the code was written by me. A colleague received a program from an Italian student in which the comments were in Turkish.

Great thinkers:
L’edizione 2010 di Abitatori del tempo si compone di 10 appuntamenti, dal 15 gennaio al 26 marzo 2010, in 9 Comuni della Brianza, tutti dedicati alla riflessione sul senso della vita e la complessità della condizione umana nelle riflessioni e nei problemi posti da filosofia, teologia, arte e scienze.
Protagonisti degli incontri i maggiori pensatori ed esponenti del pensiero filosofico contemporaneo: Emanuele Severino, Giuseppe Rizzardi, Massimo Marassi, Vincenzo Vitiello, Giulio Giorello, Salvatore Natoli, Stefano Serra Capizzano, Carlo Sini, Elio Franzini.

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Honorary degrees

The universities in Italy have started awarding honorary laureas to people for their celebrity rather than academic merit. Valentino Rossi, the motor cyclist, received a laurea (una laurea magistrale honoris causa in Comunicazione e Pubblicità) from Urbino.

The danger of this is that academics don't really know the people they are honouring.

Recently I saw a letter recommending a celebrity for an honorary laurea degree for his/her "riconosciute doti scientifiche e morali". The same day, by coincidence, the papers were full of stories regarding legal investigations into this person's behaviour - the scandal of the month.

Scandals in Italy, however, are so frequent that are quickly forgotten.

Update: I hesistated between writing the phrase "scandal of the month" or "scandal of the week". I chose wrongly: today the newspapers speak of something new: "la più colossale frode di sempre".


Saturday, February 06, 2010


I wrote recently about the tyranny of numbers when writing about double-entry accounting and the book Medici Money.

I was reminded of the subject reading an article by Peter Cameron called "Publishing and assessing mathematics". I also looked around his blog which is certainly worth visiting. Of particular interest to me is that he has begun an autobiography which describes life in Queensland at more or less the same time I was growing up there. 

In the article, he writes about, and laments, the changes that have occurred in the assessment and publication of mathematics during his (and my) lifetime. His particular concern is how one might maintain the integrity of mathematical science in the context of an enormous increase in mathematical publication, and the use of numbers to evaluate scientific worth.

I agree with many of the things he says. However in my opinion he misses the main point.

My generation was seduced by the promise of grant money into accepting the numerical evaluation of research.  Such evaluation, instead of being an incentive to improve the quality of research, has damaged mathematics. The result is that too many papers are published, many of which are now quite inadequately refereed even in journals.
We have produced too many mathematicians, a large proportion of whom will not find the employment they seek, but will scramble to publish as much as possible in the attempt. (The article reports that Peter has had 33 doctoral students; I had nine.) 

This inflation is breaking the mechanisms for ensuring the integrity of mathematics.

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Thursday, February 04, 2010

Bits and pieces

I haven't written for a few weeks. I don't know why. In January I was finishing courses. I have a couple of bits and pieces to report.

1) The University of Insubria. The Faculty of Science in Como, after essentially declaring war (the word guerra appeared in the papers) on the rest of the university in November and December, seems to decided against that strategy, at least temporarily. In December the rump of the faculty held a secret survey which, when released to the press, revealed that most members of the faculty wished to leave the university. But now the local newspapers have stopped talking about us, in favour of a local scandal in which one of the local bene shot an associate and tried to destroy the evidence by putting the offending head in a pizza oven. The faculty and the union decided to drop legal action against our request to transfer to the faculty in Varese.

2) Since we are moving faculty I have been looking at undergraduate Computer Science syllabuses. Computer science seems to have real difficulty deciding what to teach. The new course we are joining has (in proposal at least) several core mathematics courses but no core courses on automata, logic, complexity theory, recursive function theory, grammars, graph theory. The problem with mathematicians teaching informatica is that they have a very limited view of mathematics. The problem with computer scientists is that they have not decided if they want to describe a sequence of tricks, or if they really want a science.

3) I wrote recently about Tim Park's book "Medici Money". Afterwards I looked for reviews on the net, and it seems that I am completely outvoted. The reviews are uniformly glowing.

4) I wrote about John Baez's change of direction. I notice now that he has written "I’ve decided to change my research direction — so I don’t even want to give talks about topological quantum field theory, n-categories and that kind of stuff. I’d rather think about new things". In my post I said that he might consider politics like D. B*** but I don't think he would find that fun.

His announced talk at QPL2010 does not seem to be original work, apart from some extensions to n-category theory, and is about categories where the morphisms are matrices taking values in a rig, to categories of profunctors and spans, to the way star-autonomous categories act like commutative Frobenius algebras in the world of profunctors, the last being a report on work of Ross Street.

5) Another mistake in Andy Tanenbaum (I already wrote about one in 2005). Tanenbaum provides, as extra material to his book Modern Operating Systems, 2nd Edition a translation of the examples in Java. In particular he provides a semaphore class, which I have used without examination (not being a Java programmer). Up to this year it has always functioned as I expected. However this year in student's solution to a problem there arose a situation in which the semaphore class does not act as a semaphore! I am embarassed that I did not check earlier. I will write a post with details when I get a chance.

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