Favorites: September 2005 Archives

temporarily assigned to this planet


I'm going to turn now from posting about injustice and suffering in the world to focus on moi and the petty aggravations of my daily life. This is brought on by a meeting yesterday in which I was, of course, the only woman present, as is almost always the case.

I was also the only mathematician in the room, and was doubling as the only physicist, since we have no physicist involved in the project being discussed. Results of some experimental work were being presented by a very "famous"-- using the term in the limited context of academia-- prof. of electrical engineering. Not a mathematician. Not a physicist. Take note. He is "famous" largely for having invented a methodology a long time ago that was effective and which he successfully marketed here and abroad.

Long story short. He was trying to use this methodology in some experiments in which the methodology failed, so he tried modifying it in a way that was bogus. The reason I know it was bogus is that he provided a "mathematical proof" of this new method in the form of some thirty pages of hand-written notes, faxed, and a lengthy section of a report lifted from a book on shock waves by Zel'dovich and Raizer, which I just happen to own.

His "proof" was fine for about the first 29 pages, until he made a simple substitution, came up with a final equation, and wrote Q.E.D. with a smiley face next to it. The substitution he made is valid only in the limit as the Mach number of a shock approaches infinity, and he was using this equation to examine shocks of Mach number 2 or 3, so...

So I objected, and he looked at me as though a department store mannequin had just questioned him, a famous professor of electrical engineering. I persisted. I invented examples that, to me, were intuitively obvious. He dismissed my objections repeatedly, although I was, gradually, winning over the rest of the people sitting around the table. That was my goal, because I knew I could never in a million years convince the prof that he was wrong.

The rest of the people were scientists or engineers, some PhDs, some masters, but none were mathematicians, so I knew I couldn't start writing equations because everyone would tune me out. I had to fall back on simple logic: explaining the ludicrous corollaries that would follow if his assumption were true.

At such times I know that to convince listeners, I have to overcome my being a woman, my being blonde, and my being an American--a woman with a Russian or German accent is much more likely to be given the benefit of the doubt. The professor can wave his hands and talk bullshit and everybody will think "wow this guy sounds smart; he totally lost me; he's talking way over my head", while I have to use such simple logic that everyone can follow it, so they will forget what I look like and follow my logic and listen to what I say. At such times I feel so utterly mismatched, mind and body, that I sometimes feel there are no other people on the planet like me.

Sitting there, arguing my case, suffering from congestion due to allergies, an odd thought passed through my mind: I'm allergic to this planet; I'm going to request a transfer.

This thought was so ridiculously comforting that I held it throughout the meeting: I'm on temporary assignment on this planet, and I'm going to request a transfer. In fact I held the thought throughout the day, and it made my job immensely more enjoyable.

At home last night I missed my late husband. The camaraderie we shared as mathematicians was the best part of a difficult relationship. My husband, as an Aspie, was way more out of touch with the planet than I, but when it came to mathematics, we enjoyed the ability to talk to one another about our work. I could have written the professor's equation on a piece of paper and shown it to my husband, and he would have rocked back and forth with laughter at the stupidity.

But he's gone, and my son has rejected mathematics, despite, as I'm sure I've mentioned here before, probably more than once, obtaining a perfect score on the math portion of the SAT. *sigh* So there is no longer anyone with whom I can share my frustration. I tell the dog: Saint! Prof. K assumed C was zero! lol! Can you imagine that?! And Saint looks at me and I know he's thinking: Throw the ball! THROW THE BALL!

So I throw the ball, and it's okay and I'm happy, because my job on this planet is just a temporary assignment, after all.

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