For the past four days I have been at the the Cambridge Centre for Mathematical Sciences, a lovely new collection of ultra-modern pagoda-style buildings housing the best maths department(s) in the country. I was attending a workshop on protein structure (and writing it up for a journal). The workshop, incidentally, was the best scientific meeting I have ever attended. To my surprise, I stayed awake through 95% of all the seminars and understood 75% of the content.
This is, I suspect, exactly the sort of thing my parents think I get up to for a living. Observing from a secret camera, they would have seen me standing near to people with Russian, Japanese, Italian and Oxbridge accents scribbling things on chalkboards and talking about probability distributions. Most science is the very dull business of coding, doing experiments and writing up the results. Discussing real scientific problems takes up a relatively small fraction of most practitioners’ working time. In fact my head hurts from hours and hours of unbroken thinking. The part of me that always stands outside my professional activities was slightly worried when, during one of the sessions, I managed to raise a laugh with a joke about a particular example of sampling bias.
Much as I am in awe of their specialist understanding—technically, I have a degree in physics, but my maths is shit—the mathematicians of Cambridge University were something of a disappointment. Apart from one guy with a mop of unkempt hair rocking back and forth next to a drinks machine and someone else playing card patience in the canteen whilst having a conversation with himself, the population of the maths campus was shockingly normal. There were even women around. The vast majority of the inhabitants had socials skills and clean, ironed clothes.
Perhaps they are stunt mathematicians, charged with performing the dangerous everyday tasks that the university deems too risky for valuable employees blessed with Asperger’s. Meanwhile, the real nerds work away safely in their offices.