Six parts gin to one part vermouth

In fact, I did manage to resist the lure of the martini – I strolled past the planned cocktail bar, but it was in a significantly more modern building than anticipated and rather full of young people (neither of which is a bad thing in or of itself) and I was rather tired and so headed directly up the wooden hill (ah, age is a terrible thing) to the sleepiest of the home counties.

Nevertheless, the reference to Bright College Days is entirely appropriate as last weekend I returned to my alma mater for the first time in a quarter of a century.  My old college had invited me back for an unusually early evensong (at the dentist’s favourite time? In mid June?) followed by a garden party.  It seemed clear that the sub-text to this invitation was that they wanted to pump me for money, but I figured it was time to return and take my chances.  The pumping for money was very subtle – barely detectable, in fact – one was forced to deduce it from coded references to generosity, memory and legacy in the surprisingly enjoyable sermon and choice of readings at the evensong.  This being England in June, the garden party took place in doors – in hall, where I used to eat as a student – but was perfectly pleasant and once again lacked any clear purpose from the college’s perspective.  I do wonder about the future funding of education if this is their approach to acquiring new donors.

As it was my first time back in Oxford in a couple of decades, I made a weekend of it.  As a result, by late afternoon on the Saturday I had already cycled further (2.3 miles to Whittlesford Parkway station) and consumed more alcohol (2 pints of bitter) than I did in my entire university career.  The city had changed, but not beyond recognition and I could still find my away around based on ancient memories – though a few of these memories did prove to be less than 100% accurate.  I engaged in a little personal pilgrimage visiting a whole range of sites of significance from my university days – and so found myself walking both in the present and the past at the same time.  I was very much living in the here and then.  It was good to see some things had survived since my day – particularly pleasing that Walter’s in the Turl was still trading and still offering gentlemen a haircut (a service it provided for me on several occasions).

The odd thing about re-visiting Oxford was that the city, and its contents, seemed smaller than I remembered.  However, this can’t be because I was smaller then as I was already fully grown – though admittedly I’m probably a tad heavier now (perhaps, I should make clear that this extra mass is all toned muscle).  I can only assume that back in the mid-80s, Oxford was by some distance the largest place I had ever lived – but subsequently I have lived and worked in rather larger metropoleis and so Oxford has shrunk in comparison (well, it was either that or someone has washed it in overly hot water).

Despite appearances, I didn’t spend the entire weekend wallowing in nostalgia – though I did find myself musing whether “then me” and “now me” would get on at all.  No, I took in some of the cultural delights of the city – delights I had largely managed to ignore when I was living there.  I can thoroughly recommend the Master Drawings exhibition at the Ashmolean museum.  I was particularly affected by a self-portrait by one Samuel Palmer – a portrait which haunts me still as I have a copy in postcard form.  So haunted was I, that later in the day I tried one of his very fine pints at the Lamb and Flag (a venue which I had walked past many times, many many times as a student but never previously ventured inside) – well, OK, I’ll admit I cannot prove it was brewed by the same family Palmer but a chap can imagine.  I also managed to sneak in a trip to the Pitt Rivers museum to look at their fine collection of Benin bronzes – which are unusually honest about their theft-based sourcing in the descriptive labelling.  I also finally made it to the Holywell Music room – which is a lovely chamber music venue – and heard an excellent performance of Dvořák’s string quintet.

One of my favourite moments came with lunch on Sunday. I sat enjoying the splendid (and very reasonably priced) victuals at the Missing Bean Café and conversation at the table next to me turned to topology.  On leaving, I happened to peer into the window of the second hand (Oxfam) bookshop next door and what a prospect met my eyes:


So many tempting titles – only iron self control kept me walking past.  The cafés and second-hand bookshops of Cambridge have never offered such mathematical subject matter – or am I just not going to the right places?

I think it may be worth returning to Oxford before I reach my seventies in another 25 years, but in the meantime I think it is time I returned to sliding down the razor blade of life while you go your sordid sep’rate ways (and I think that’s probably enough quotation from the excellent Tom Lehrer – who I first encountered whilst at college –  for one post).

Hand waving

As I must have alluded to at least once, I am a lapsed pure mathematician – or, if not lapsed, then certainly very rusty.  When I was a proper mathematician (i.e. my numerator was smaller than my denominator), we used the phrase “hand waving” to describe the sort of proofs that other lesser disciplines (i.e. all of them) present to justify their theorems and pronouncements.  I think the idea is that if they wave their hands about enough, they will distract the audience who will then fail to notice the logical flaws, hidden assumptions and wild guesswork upon which they are relying (a form of logical legerdemain).

One of the reasons for my choice of mathematics as a degree subject (possibly the most significant reason) was the absence of any need to write essays or the like.  With maths, either you can produce the answer or you can’t – there is no point (or indeed, way) to write a 40 page essay dancing around the fact that you don’t know the answer in the hope of bamboozling whoever set the question.  As a result, I find it particularly distressing that a bunch of very senior mathematicians have been forced to put pen to paper (rather than chalk to board, or pencil to paper) and write an open letter to the PM bemoaning the current funding of mathematics at the post-doctoral level.

It would seem that the EPSRC – the main funding body – is only providing support to two areas of study (of which more later) which may lead to many young mathematicians fleeing the country to more supportive domains (perhaps those that permit unique factorisation?).  These decisions would also seem to have been made without consulting the maths community – so were presumably made entirely on the basis of hand waving (at best).  I do wonder if those poor unfortunates who run the EPSRC, and who failed to make it in the highest of all disciplines, are seeking revenge on their betters.

I suppose mathematics must be seen as a pretty soft target for cuts.  It seems unlikely that the public will rise as one (or if so, quite literally in that only one will rise) to fight for maths in the way they might for libraries, hospitals or the countryside.  I fear too many harbour traumatic experiences with maths from their schooldays, and never made it to the sunlit uplands of higher mathematics where there is beauty and elegance to rival any work of art or landscape.  Marcus de Sautoy has been doing his best – but he just doesn’t have the flowing locks of Brian Cox (yes, I promised you poetry – and, here at last is a bit of rhyme!).

What’s that Sooty?  Which two areas are still being funded?  Well, as you asked so nicely I’ll tell you;  the EPSRC is only funding the areas of statistics and applied probability.  I sense a, not very well, hidden agenda here.

  • Statistics is the primary method by which our government seeks to communicate its ‘successes’ to (and hide its failures from) the public.  It looks as though we are continuing to fund new ways for our masters to lie more effectively to us – to paraphrase Benjamin Disraeli rather freely and let’s face it, I think politicians passed beyond damned lies some time ago (though there is no proof that BD ever made his most famous quote).
  • I would paraphrase applied probability as the study of gambling.  So I assume that George Osborne is planning to put a pretty big wager on the gee-gees, or perhaps on a spin of the roulette wheel, as his only hope of reducing the deficit. Perhaps I should share with him my long-held thought that, if probability theorists are that good and really know how to gamble successfully, why do they still need grant funding?

So, I am unconvinced that the funding of lying and gambling is where I’d place my mathematical priorities  – but I can certainly see the appeal to the political elite.  Or, perhaps being more charitable (which given the cuts we will all need to be) they are not hand waving but drowning.