November 17, 2011

A minor celebration today…I’ve finally had my first paper accepted for publication.  As a measure of how long and convoluted this process has been, consider the fact that this is the very same* paper that I discussed in this post.  That was written in October 2010, and was titled “A year’s work, lessons learnt”.  Which means, according to my calculations, that the time between beginning work on this project, and actually getting something published has been over 2 years!

Of course, most of this time was not spent actually doing anything related to that particular paper.  In fact, the majority of the time was spent waiting for referees to get round to reading the thing.  Actually “waiting” is the wrong word, as I have come to realise that the best strategy when submitting papers to journals is not to wait, but to completely put it out of your mind (unfortunately this doesn’t help when you then have to revise it months later), and perhaps set some kind of reminder to get in touch with the editor one year in the future and ask exactly what is going on.  I currently have two other papers “under review”, one of which has been “with editor” (I assume this to mean that the editor hasn’t got around to actually looking at it, let alone passing it to a referee) since May, and the other which, perhaps thankfully, I have no way of knowing what is happening with.

There is intermittent hand-wringing about the peer-review system in mathematical circles, and in academia in general.  Like exams, and job interviews, it seems to be grudgingly accepted to be the least bad form of evaluation.  Recently Timothy Gowers raised the possibility of an alternative system on his blog, which led to much fevered debate (I have just noted that I am at least the the seventh blog to have linked to that particular post, so it is safe to assume the debate sparked by it stretches much further than that particular lengthy list of comments!).

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11:11:11 11/11/11

November 11, 2011

I thought I should celebrate the once-in-a-century fact that all of our time/date digits are the same this morning by actually writing another post within a week of the last one (something I don’t think I’ve yet managed on this blog). Of course, the pedants among you might think it improper not to include the “20” in “2011”, but if we were to include those two digits then this occurrence will only ever have happened once before – on this day in 1111 – and will never happen again!  Which is a bit upsetting.

Here is a question for you: what day of the week will it be the next time this happens, on 11/11/2111?  This is the precisely the kind of question that some “idiot savants” are famously good at answering very quickly.  How could they possibly do this, in their heads, in a matter of seconds?  It seems very mysterious, until you give it some thought. Not that I have!  But John Conway, a highly esteemed mathematician who needs no introduction to any other mathematicians who may be reading this (non-mathematicians might possibly unwittingly know of him through his creation the Game of Life…if you can remember back to the dark old days of Windows 95, this was actually included as a “game” along with Minesweeper et al.)*, has actually invented a method of giving the day of the week on any given date.  Why?  I don’t know.  Perhaps he was bored of competing with mere mortals and decided to take on the savants.

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Schrödinger’s cat

November 8, 2011

I usually read novels in bed, as my brain tends to be too tired to take in any more information for the day.  So the fact that this is the third post I am starting with a reference to a popular science book makes me think that perhaps I have not been working hard enough…

The book in question is The Emperor’s New Mind, by Roger Penrose.  The main thesis of this wonderful book is, apparently (and in a very small nutshell), that the mind does not work like a computer*.  However, I am currently about 3/4 of the way through it, and this has not yet been touched upon!  Rather, over 400 pages or so, Penrose has valiantly attempted to explain Turing machines, classical mechanics, relativity, quantum theory and cosmology to the interested (and, one must assume, quite dedicated) layperson.  I can only assume that all this is going to coalesce into a grand theory of Mind, but it does so far seem like quite an ambitious project.  Having tried to achieve this kind of comprehensive introduction to even the smallest of mathematical subjects myself in previous posts (you might have noticed that I have long since given up trying to do this), I have great respect for Penrose’s tenacity.  I find that the problem with this type of enterprise lies in trying to tread the line between being impenetrable to non-mathematicians, and boring for mathematicians.   While The Emperor’s New Mind is a great book, I think it is safe to say that it probably falls on the former side of this line; it is perhaps not entirely suitable for bedtime reading.

Anyway, I have just been reading Penrose’s take on the maltreated feline of this post’s title, and it got me thinking, so I thought I would discuss it.  The cat in question is a paradox which Erwin Schrödinger came up with in order to show the absurdity of trying to apply quantum theory at the classical physical level (that is, the everyday world with which we interact, as opposed to the exceedingly odd quantum level of subatomic particles).   This is, of course, a massive and complex subject, and I will only provide the merest of scrapes of its surface!  If you happen to be a pedantic physicist, then please do comment on any inaccuracies in what follows.

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