Three Rules for Tackling a World-Famous Math Problem

While I was listening to Sir Andrew Wiles speak, I saw the writer next to me had jotted three adjectives on his pad: “Calm. Elegant. Precise.”

Astute as those three words are, they miss the basic strangeness of Wiles’ life story. For all his calm, elegance, and precision, the guy is also a unicorn, a sasquatch, a one-of-a-kind creature from the pages of myth. He is, if you will, a walking oxymoron.

He is a celebrity mathematician.


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A Mathematician Looks at a Cat

I’m currently in the midst of an international move, from the UK back to the US. This means that my days unfold in confused montages of jet-lag, scone-longing, and trying to get in on the wrong side of the car. Haven’t had much time for the blog, but I did have these cartoons lying around.

ME: What do you think of these drawings?

MY WIFE: Hey, a cat with a mustache. What’s not to like?

ME: That’s not a mustache. It’s whiskers.

MY WIFE: Okay. I’m not going to tell you what to call your cat’s mustache.


Cats have a symmetry group of order two, because there are two ways to transform a cat while preserving its basic structure: reflect it in a vertical mirror, or leave it alone.

Most cats prefer the latter.




A cat’s activity can be modeled by a delta function. That’s a function whose value is zero everywhere, except at a single point, and yet whose integral is 1. Similarly, the cat is motionless except when it is destroying furniture in the space of a single Planck time.

Note: a delta function is not really a function, just a distribution with good branding. Continue reading

What Do You Do With 11-to-13-Year-Olds?

A few weeks ago, my school asked me to give a 10-minute speech to our 400 youngest students, a sort of farewell address before I return to my American homeland.

Ten minutes isn’t very long, but it is roughly 297 times their average attention span, and I didn’t want to bore them. So I asked my class of 12-year-olds: What should I talk about?

Here’s how the conversation went:


Then they sort of yelled indiscriminately for a while, which I suppose was my own fault for riling them up. You might as well feed them sugar right before bedtime.

Seeking greater pliability and innocence, I asked my class of 11-year-olds. This is how that went:


Then they spent the afternoon giggling, for which, once again, I can only blame myself.

After this, I realized what I wanted to talk to them about: them. After all, it’s not just me who finds that this age-group ping-pongs between “charmingly ungovernable” and “utterly feral.” Everybody seems to share that feeling.

The world isn’t quite sure what to do with 11-to-13-year-olds.


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