A mathematical home for the socioeconomically inappropriate

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The author’s childhood home in Philadelphia, recent photo by Google Street View

A month or so before the conference that closed the special semester I had helped to organize at MSRI in 2014, two of my colleagues at a dessert reception challenged me to deny that, overall, life was pretty good — maybe the claim was that it was better than it had ever been.  The question left me flabbergasted.   My colleagues came armed with statistics alleging a dramatic rise in the average family’s standard of living.  I was unprepared:  I didn’t know about the Berkeley study that would be published a few months later, under the title The High Public Cost of Low Wages, reporting that 7% of families of part-time faculty at US colleges were in receipt of food stamps; I didn’t know the statistic, reported by the Federal Reserve Board two years ago and now familiar thanks to Bernie Sanders, that 40% of Americans could not meet a $400 emergency expense without resorting to borrowing or selling something.  All I knew is that I had read about homeowners trapped in underwater mortgages, college graduates with unsustainable student debt who had moved back with their parents, growing pressure on employees at France Télécom that had led to a rash of suicides, long time residents forced out of their neighborhoods by gentrification, and many more manifestations of a general malaise that was not merely widespread but that was represented in multiple instances among my own extended family and friends.

(Gentrification is in a sense the opposite of blockbusting, which is the technical name for what happened to the working class neighborhood pictured in the photo above.)

It dawned on me a few days after our confrontation that my extended family and network of close friends included an excessive proportion of the wrong kind of people, from the standpoint of my professional milieu.  This led me to entertain the counterfactual suspicion that I had not done enough to break off lingering ties to the particular wrong category of people from which I myself had undoubtedly issued.  And since the guiding principle of MWA, which I had recently finished proofreading, was that information from my own biography is only of interest insofar as it sheds light on significant social trends, I decided to devote my remarks at the conference dinner to the question of whether there was still a home for people from “inappropriate socioeconomic backgrounds” in the big tent of the mathematical community.  Here are the remarks, slightly edited.


I will try to be brief, because many of you have already heard me several times this year and you may feel you’ve had your dose. It was not always this way.  The first time I was an invited speaker at a genuinely international conference was in 1988, at the Ann Arbor conference organized by Laurent Clozel and Jim Milne. I took advantage of the opportunity to announce a special evening session to talk about the Science for the People program in Nicaragua with which I was deeply involved at the time.  In the end exactly three people came — so my ratings have definitely improved since then — but it was a select group: Don Blasius, Marie-France Vignéras, and Richard Taylor, whom I met for the first time at the conference. I’m still talking to all three, and in a sense I think it’s accurate to trace the beginning of my collaboration with Richard to that presentation. So that alone made the conference productive; but Steve Zucker and I also started working together in Ann Arbor, and Steve Kudla and I worked out the idea for our Annals paper there, and a lot of the other things I’ve done since then also started there.

So my belated thanks to the organizers of that conference, and to all my collaborators before and since, the ones who are here and the ones who couldn’t make it.  I hope those of you who have spent time at this program have also found your time productive.  If you have — I certainly have — thanks on your behalf and on my behalf are due in the first place to Richard Taylor, who came up with the idea and convinced me to sketch the first proposal and to come here in January 2011 to sell it to the SAC.  As you all know, I have many reasons to thank Richard, probably more than he himself knows,* but this is the most pertinent today.  I also thank my fellow organizers, who not only did all the work, as per agreement, but also decided to forego NSA funding for any part of the semester, after I explained to them who the NSA was — this was before the Snowden revelations — and thus spared all of us a lot of awkward explanations. I thank my students for coming and for persisting in the illusion that they have to be patient when I ask them even the most pointless questions. For making the semester run smoothly I want to thank the MSRI staff, and for this dinner a special thanks to Chris Marshall, who managed to communicate with several layers of administration in France as well as with my old friend Jon Koritz, who selected and supplied the wine. And I also have to thank Christine le Sueur, Kahina Bencheikh, Etienne Gouin-Lamourette, and Célia Chauveau for taking care the bills, as well as the European Research Council and the del Duca Foundation for actually providing the funds. For the stunning poster I have to thank the photographer Bruno Fert, who took the picture; the person I know only as Christophe Cornut’s little brother, who designed the poster; and Ariane Mézard who put it all together.

In all honesty I also need to thank U.S. Senator Ernest McFarland, D-Arizona, and
Warren Atherton, California Republican, for the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the G.I. Bill of Rights, which sent my father to college and thus started the process of upward mobility that has propelled me to this podium. When I was a student it was possible for someone of my rather modest origins to indulge the fantasy of doing something as fanciful as devoting one’s life to mathematical research.  Even then, as I’ve since learned, it was not so common, and my impression is that it has become much more difficult since then, certainly in the US and Britain, and increasingly in continental Europe as well.  So if there is one message to take away from this banquet, it’s that it’s important to do everything possible to guarantee that people from inappropriate socioeconomic backgrounds are always welcome in mathematics.

But enough about me. There are many things more serious than mathematics in this world, and it’s unfortunately the case that we are increasingly finding ourselves forced, just by virtue of being mathematicians, either to face or to pretend to ignore a new type of ethical challenge. I’m thinking in the first place of the use of mathematical techniques for surveillance by organizations like the NSA, because this was explicitly discussed recently on the n-category café website, but there are many other issues: finance mathematics, big data, artificial intelligence, drones, or the increasing dependence on the generosity of UHNWI’s or Ultra High Net-Worth Individuals. It seems there is room for a place, in the virtual sense, where mathematicians can reflect on these ethical challenges, and perhaps come up with ways to respond to them — an association, or committee, or website, or discussion circle. After reading the n-category café discussion I wrote to Tom Leinster, the Edinburgh topologist who has taken the lead in raising the question of the responsibilities of mathematicians in the development of new techniques of surveillance, and to Tom Hales, who has been increasingly outspoken about the activities of the NSA in undermining security of communications, and I asked whether they would be interested in thinking about how to promote the form such an association might take. Both of them immediately wrote back to express their interest. So this discussion will be taking place, and I invite you to send me a message if you would like to be part of it. I’m eager to get started as soon as this conference is over.

Much to my disappointment, only one or two people wrote to express interest in creating the kind of association I described in the last paragraph.  Several mathematicians did commit to writing chapters for a hypothetical book on ethics in mathematics, and I even drafted an introduction, but after several years the chapters hadn’t appeared and when Trump was elected I decided to extract the useful part of the introduction for a contribution to a volume in celebration of Reuben Hersh.  Quite independently, however, initiatives to explore the ethical issues in mathematics have been developing over the past few years.  The most visible manifestations of this new trend may be the Cambridge University Ethics in Mathematics Project, already mentioned on this blog, founded in 2016;  the Ethics in Mathematics Wikipedia page, created in 2017; and the AMS Bertrand Russell Prize, established by Tom Hales and first awarded in 2018.  But I discovered many other activities on a smaller scale this past January when I attended the annual Joint Mathematics Meeting in Denver.  I was there, among other reasons, to participate in the very first Mathematics and Ethics panel hosted by the AMS Committee on the Profession (and I will be posting my notes for the panel at some point); but I had the impression that ethical concerns in the broadest sense — including, crucially, the question of opening up mathematics to people of a wider variety of socioeconomic backgrounds — were expressed in many other JMM sessions, and that mathematicians are giving them much more attention than they were willing to do just five years ago.

Of course, perhaps I just saw what I was hoping to see.  This stand and others like it at the JMM also received quite a lot of attention:


Taken at the Joint Mathematics Meeting, Denver, January 18, 2020


*There was no need for me to be so mysterious.  What I had in mind was a message Richard sent in 1996, after my father died.  The message was simple and straightforward but it came at the right time and it made a real difference.

UPDATE:  When I was a Princeton undergraduate I determined, on the basis of socioeconomic data that was somehow made available, that I was in the 11th percentile of the class of 1973, which means that 89% of my classmates came from more affluent families than mine.  (I hasten to add that, as far as I could tell, I enjoyed all the benefits of a middle-class lifestyle during the period of postwar prosperity, especially after Philadelphia schoolteachers obtained their first union contract a few years before I arrived at Princeton.)  The Board of Trustees decided in the wake of the demonstrations against the Vietnam War — notably the occupation of Nassau Hall, led by mathematics graduate students — that there were too many troublemakers in the lower income brackets, and if I had been admitted a few years later I would have fallen somewhere between the 5th and 8th percentile.  To judge by Louis Menand’s article in New Yorker last year, the socioeconomically inappropriate are now even more unwelcome at Princeton than they were during the boom years:

According to the Harvard economist Raj Chetty, children whose parents are in the top one per cent of the income distribution—roughly 1.6 million households—are seventy-seven times more likely to attend an Ivy League college than children whose parents are in the bottom income quintile (about twenty-five million households). … The most extreme case, according to [journalist Paul] Tough, is Princeton, where seventy-two per cent are from the top quintile and 2.2 per cent are from the bottom.

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