Monday, 28 January 2008

"Not Much" Monday

So what's going on? "Not much."

Of course, in the wider scheme of things that's not true. There's war and famine, plague and death, chaotic weather systems, even more chaotic relationships between humans, and a spoof on 300 is top of the box office in America...

I spent some time in the office over the weekend working on my slides for the talk that I have to give to a group of high school maths students next week. Part of me is looking forward to doing it, part of me is replaying every nightmare I've ever had about being ill-prepared for my part in a play or for a public speaking occasion on a nearly constant background brain chatter. It will be pretty good, and I'm sure that's what I'll think when it's over and done with - but for some reason I am more nervous about this than I was about the various talks I've given at a national or international level.

Steve Merchant, in one of the Ricky Gervais Show podcasts, once talked about going into a primary school to talk about being a writer. He described being nervous, and realised that he didn't know anything about children really, or what things they understood at a conceptual level (i.e., what it means to "get inside someone's head"). This is a different thing really, although there are still conceptual issues at stake.

My big worry is just how high/low I can pitch this talk. My friend John (who is a teacher at the school I am going to, and he was here doing his PhD up until about eighteen months ago) said that they're all fairly bright, but there's bright and then there's bright, you know?

I've met Masters level students who are "bright" but who are unable to think for themselves (desribes about half of last year's Masters students here). These high schoolers might be bright, but knot theory is something that most university students won't meet until they're nearly in grad school. That's not because the problems in knot theory are difficult to state; far from it, the basic problems (which in a sense are still open) can be explained to the layman in less than five minutes.

The difficulty comes in firstly explaining why these are difficult problems (which I think I can do) and secondly in describing how we might approach trying to solve them. The machinery for the latter is what I'm trying to decide how to explain, what I can expect them to understand or how I can explain things simply.

And then there is the real difficulty in trying to persuade them that knot theory is an area of maths worthy of study...

Still, it's not all bad. It was worth getting out of bed just to see these pictures from the Venice Carnival. I especially like the fourth picture in the sequence, there's kind of a grotesque beauty to it. I've never been to a proper masquerade, it's something I would like to do at some point.

What's going on? "Not much."

It's the answer that's easy, the answer that applies on perhaps a cosmic level, but right this second...
...I'm breathing in...
...I'm thinking...
...I'm remembering...
...I'm typing...
...I'm listening to Maroon 5...
...I'm waiting...
...I'm searching...
...I'm lacking...
...I'm becoming...
...and you and I are doing all these and so much more. OK, maybe you're not listening to Maroon 5, but you get the point. That's just this second, a split-second, an atom of time. That's without getting down to what's really going on with you, with your life and with the people in your orbit.

More soon.

2 comments:

Bilbo said...

"I've met Masters level students who are "bright" but who are unable to think for themselves..." You should work in the Pentagon. As far as knot theory goes, I believe in the Alexander the Great approach to it...just cut the damned thing and move on.

zero_zero_one said...

I was actually reading about the Gordian Knot a few days ago as I was doing a little bit of research for this talk. I think I'm going to leave it out though, and start my talk with the great metaphor that my supervisor uses at the start of his talks:

"Now, in years past, knot theory was seen as the beach volleyball of pure maths - today it is seen as the decathlon..."