The Life of a Modern Mathematician

For the discussion of math. Duh.

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Asplode
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The Life of a Modern Mathematician

Postby Asplode » Fri Feb 19, 2010 5:56 pm UTC

I've recently (within the last year) turned my academic attention to science. I'm turning 23 in a few days and I've been suffering a chronic case of I-don't-know-what-I-want-to-be-when-I-grow-up-itis ever since I graduated high school, but this seems to be a pretty firm resolution for once. I'm tentatively majoring in physics, but that decision was made on a whim in the counselor's office at my local community college.

I knew all of the sciences were math intensive, and I wasn't necessarily excited about that at the time, but I saw it as a challenge and started teaching myself the basics of calculus in my spare time so that I'd be prepared for the coming onslaught of math and physics classes. And then something funny happened: I started really getting into math for the first time in my life. It's the darndest thing...

Lately I've started to wonder if maybe I wouldn't enjoy being a mathematician more than a physicist, and herein lies my question.

What does a mathematician actually do? With physics, I have a pretty good idea what the modern landscape looks like; there are tons of really great books and documentaries on the subject. I don't have the same intuition with math. I know it's a diverse field, and I know a little about each of the main tiers (I've wikipedia'd, in other words), but nothing to really tie it together into a cohesive story.

So, I'm assuming there are a few people here are mathematicians. What do you do every day? What are the problems you're working on? What convinced you to choose this career?

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t0rajir0u
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Re: The Life of a Modern Mathematician

Postby t0rajir0u » Fri Feb 19, 2010 7:23 pm UTC

Instead of giving you an answer, I'll point you to some resources:

- Several prominent mathematicians have active blogs, and reading through these blogs can give you a surprisingly good idea of what it is a mathematician does all the time. I'll recommend http://terrytao.wordpress.com/ and http://gowers.wordpress.com/, since 1) they're both Fields medalists, and 2) they write extremely well. I also highly recommend Terence Tao's career advice.

- The Princeton Companion to Mathematics is a fantastic survey of some of the most important fields of mathematics, and the writing here will give you a really good sense of what mathematicians care about these days.

- This list of popular math books might also help you out. If you want a look into some modern mathematics akin to popular accounts of quantum mechanics, etc. I highly recommend Ash and Gross's Fearless Symmetry, which is about some of the mathematics behind Wiles' proof of Fermat's Last Theorem.

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MartianInvader
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Re: The Life of a Modern Mathematician

Postby MartianInvader » Sat Feb 20, 2010 3:00 pm UTC

Math gets really specialized at higher levels. Even a mathematician would probably have trouble describing what's going on in the whole field, because s/he is only working in one particular subject. An expert in one field of math can have no idea what's going on in another. If you're interested in the spread of subjects currently popular... maybe look at the sessions of the last Joint Math Meetings?

Some things are fairly common to all mathematicians, though - you'll spend some time writing grant proposals or other applications for financial support. You'll spend time editing papers. You'll spend time going to conferences (which are typically awesome). You'll probably spend a good chunk of time teaching and grading, and a good chunk of that teaching will probably be calculus. Somewhere in all that, though, you'll also be doing some actual math.
Let's have a fervent argument, mostly over semantics, where we all claim the burden of proof is on the other side!

DavCrav
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Re: The Life of a Modern Mathematician

Postby DavCrav » Sat Feb 20, 2010 6:08 pm UTC

MartianInvader wrote:You'll spend time going to conferences (which are typically awesome).


Oh yeah! Conferences rock.


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