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Mathematician envy

The scene is a hands-on workshop for developing presentation skills. Sixteen teaching assistants have come prepared with a ten minute teaching session on a topic of their choice.

A biologist describes the human genome project. A chemist delights us with the tale of dimerizing a ketone molecule. An Lab TA attempts to convey the intricacies of getting gcc to compile code. On display are powerpoint slides, overhead transparencies, voice modulation, presentation structure, good body language and a dozen other things essential for good presentation.

Then there are the mathematicians. Each one gets up, unassumingly, goes up to the big white board, takes up a felt pen and writes down a proof. Concise and compact, straight to the point, and scientifically unquestionable. The trainer says that their voices are too soft. Others that they spend too much time on the details, not stopping adequately to see how the audience responded.

I am too busy envying them to care. To work in a field where everything starts from a notion of absolute truth lends mathematicians a somewhat magical air. While the real world may reach out for help to mathematics, mathematics itself is above (some say contemptuous) of the real world. Delving into knowledge just for the sake of study is an aspect of scholarship that applied computer scientists rarely get to experience – but something that I dreamed of as a fresh graduate student. Someday, maybe, I’ll sit and study math.