On Mathematics, Mandelbrot, and Beauty

I have a confession to make. I suck at math. I always have, and maybe always will. Despite possessing two engineering degrees and being very close to completing a third, I can’t say that I am comfortable with math. So you might be surprised if you ever drop by my office on a Sunday afternoon. You’ll find me with a broad smile on my face, leafing through a big fat book titled something like ‘Advanced Engineering Mathematics’. I read it because I want to, and I read it because it is fun.

“But math is hard!”, you say. I agree, but great difficulty does not always breed contempt. On the contrary, years of struggling with math have actually pushed me to a level where I have started to see the beauty in it.

To the uninitiated, the very notion of finding beauty in numbers and rigid logic might seem absurd. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Case in point – the pictures below:

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A Case About Probiotics

Erin Andrews is sold on probiotics.  Are you?

Erin Andrews is sold on probiotics. Are you?

 
Erin Andrews is trying to sell me probiotics.1 She is walking through a bustling gym wearing a sharp blazer and a fresh blow out. Male patrons gawk. She bubbles that the euphoric powers of probiotics can improve digestion and immunity. She takes probiotics, and she has grown tall, healthy, and has a sweet gig interviewing football players. And now every gym member is clamoring to get a slice of that probiotic pie.

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Fixing Urban Sinkholes: A Noisy Solution to a Dirty Problem

Picture of 2010 sinkhole in Guatemala City.

Picture of 2010 sinkhole in Guatemala City.

The pounding starts at 7:00 AM every morning outside my house here in Pittsburgh, and it’s been like that for 8 months now. Every weekday, whether it’s a backhoe ripping through asphalt, a jackhammer shredding up the concrete, or a buzz saw dicing the sidewalk, there is a plethora of noise that I wake up to as they dig holes on my street. And why are they digging these holes? To fix a larger hole – a sinkhole.

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When Do I Start Knowing What I’m Doing?

xkcd #451: Imposter

Nah, we’re all too busy worrying about whether we’re experts in our field. (Source: xkcd)

When my advisor informed her assembled advisees that I was the group’s “machine learning expert,” I nearly choked. I thought I had a pretty good idea of what expertise looked like. An expert possesses a deep, intuitive understanding of his or her subject. An expert exudes confidence in his or her abilities and reputation. An expert fields detailed questions without batting an eyelid. What an expert most certainly does not look like, I thought, is a clueless amateur of a Ph.D. student.

My lofty image of expertise was not my own invention – our society has an unhealthy tendency to fetishize experts. We see the degree of knowledge possessed by professors and analysts and TED speakers as almost mystical. We speak in awed whispers of their brilliance and intuition. And of course, the praise is often well-deserved; I don’t mean to suggest that there is no such thing as expertise. But the way we idolize experts does great damage to experts and novices alike. Continue reading

Bend It Like Magnus

It’s World Cup time, and around the world football and soccer fans are lining up to complain about how stupid the word “soccer” is. 31 of the world’s best footballing nations (and England) came to Brazil for a chance at glory and honor in the world’s favorite pastime. While many of the people in the U.S.A. may have only watched by accident, chances are good that you saw something remarkable this year. No, it’s not the US watching soccer once the cup’s over – that has no chance of happening. Take a look at this free kick (I humbly suggest muting the video and watching the first 45 seconds):

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The Metamorphosis of Biology: Now You See Me, Now You Don’t

Figure 1: Even I am grossed out enough by this picture to reconsider the merits of the weasel.  Figure from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Donnola_vs_lepre.JPG

Figure 1: Even I am grossed out enough by this picture to reconsider the merits of the weasel. Figure from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Donnola_vs_lepre.JPG

 
In fourth grade, my classmates and I were assigned a project. We were to research our favorite animal at the local library, and give a presentation on this animal to the rest of the class. When it was time for our presentations, most of my classmates excitedly gabbed about lions, tigers, humpback whales, or dolphins. I went in front of the class to present my favorite animal, the weasel.

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Thoughts From a Sea Urchin Meeting: Part 5

This is the final part of my series documenting my time at the Developmental Biology of Sea Urchins conference in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Previous entries: Introduction, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.
 

Part 5: Lessons Learned and Coming Home

8:00 AM

All we have to do now is wait for our shuttle back to the airport. Around me there are all sorts of scientists who look just how I feel: Tired and ready to go home for some relaxation, but also anxious and ready to get back into the lab and work on some of the ideas that they got from the conference. A number of them also look like they have hangovers that could slay the most alcohol-tolerant of English dockworkers. So, you know, a pretty successful week, overall. I had a great time at the conference. It was very interesting, but also quite a bit of work for me. Even after two years of working on this system, there is just so much more to know about how sea urchins grow and develop. It can be a bit overwhelming, but I know that if other people here can understand it, then in the future I can too. I hope that next time I have a talk to give, because it really seems like talking to these people about my work would be extremely exciting and rewarding.

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