Home > math, modeling, women in math > Leila Schneps is a mystery writer!

Leila Schneps is a mystery writer!

March 27, 2013

I’m back! I missed you guys bad.

My experience with Seattle in the last 8 days has convinced me of something I rather suspected, namely I’m a huge New York snob and can’t exist happily anywhere else. I will spare you the details (they have to do with cars, subways, and being an asshole pedestrian) but suffice it to say, glad to be home.

Just a few caveats on complaining about my vacation:

  1. I enjoyed visiting the University of Washington and giving the math colloquium there as well as a “Math Day” talk where I showed kids the winning strategy for Nim (as well as other impartial two-player games) following my notes from last summer.
  2. I enjoyed reading Leon and Becky’s guest posts. Thanks guys!
  3. And then there was the time spent with my darling family. Of course, goes without saying, it’s always magical to get to the point where your kids have invented a whole new language of insults after you’ve outlawed certain words: “Shut your fidoodle, you syncopathic lardle!”

Of all the topics I want to write about today, I’ve decided to go with the most immediate and surprising one : Leila Schneps is now a mystery writer! How cool is that? She’s written a book with her daughter, Math on Trial: How Numbers Get Used and Abused in the Courtroom, currently in stock and available on Amazon. And she wrote an op-ed for the New York Times talking about it (hat tip Chris Wiggins).

I know Leila from having been her grad student assistant at the GWU Summer Program for Women in Math the first year it existed, in 1995. She taught undergrads about Galois cohomology and interpreted elements of H^1 as twists and elements of H^2 as obstructions and then had them do a bunch of examples for homework with me. It was pretty awesome, and I learned a ton. Leila is also a regular and fantastic commenter on mathbabe.

I love the premise of the book she’s written. She finds a bunch of historical examples where mathematics is used in trials to the detriment of justice, and people get unfairly jailed (or, less often, let free). From the op-ed (emphasis mine):

Decades ago, the Harvard law professor Laurence H. Tribe wrote a stinging denunciation of the use of mathematics at trial, saying that the “overbearing impressiveness” of numbers tends to “dwarf” other evidence. But we neither can nor should throw math out of the courtroom. Advances in forensics, which rely on data analysis for everything from gunpowder to DNA, mean that quantitative methods will play an ever more important role in judicial deliberations.

The challenge is to make sure that the math behind the legal reasoning is fundamentally sound. Good math can help reveal the truth. But in inexperienced hands, math can become a weapon that impedes justice and destroys innocent lives.

Go Leila!

Categories: math, modeling, women in math
  1. mathematrucker
    March 27, 2013 at 11:42 am

    First: glad you’re back!

    Second: okay fine, no place like NYC – but since it was a trip to Seattle that prompted the mention, here goes…

    Among truck drivers, NYC has by far the worst reputation of any city in America, and deservedly so.

    Exhibit A: NY State’s egregious habit of posting ridiculously false bridge clearances. (What a novel concept: traffic signs designed to mislead!)

    Because I hardly ever drive there, I don’t know what the actual clearances are. More than once I’ve had to slow down to a crawl in fast-moving traffic in NYC – this creates a major traffic hazard – open the door and stick my head out to watch the trailer to make sure it isn’t scraping the bridge.

    Exhibit B: Climate.

    Exhibit C: Traffic congestion (admittedly Seattle’s got some of the worst around, too).

    Who knows, maybe I’d rather live in NYC than L.A. I’ve never spent enough time there to savor the good stuff, so I can’t be totally sure what I might be missing out on.

    Here’s my current short list:

    1) Seattle (where I grew up)
    2) Las Vegas
    3) Portland, OR
    4) Minneapolis
    5) Austin

    Cities I dislike tend to be politically conservative ones like Cincinnati and Dallas. There are entire regions of America I don’t like driving into (apart from NYC, the northeast isn’t one of them).

    And forget rural…the closest I’ve ever come to that is Pepperell, MA, way too rural for me!

    • March 27, 2013 at 6:38 pm

      Hm, Exhibit A I think can be easily tossed as it’s irrelevant to most people. B is a little funny given that what Seattle has can hardly be called “weather” (yay, seasons!) and C actually makes the case for NYC given that the only thing worse than traffic congestion is the white-knuckle-crazy-making knowledge that you have no alternative in a city with piss-poor public transportation like Seattle (not to mention the crazy hills that make the bicycle a lesser option).

      Most importantly though, we’re in agreement that LA is an armpit (that’s where I grew up) and glad that Cathy is back!

      Lastly, I think the literacy and education level of Seattle-ites might help your argument more (after living there for 11 years, I have to say, that’s really my favorite part about it, amazing, brilliant people).

      • mathematrucker
        March 27, 2013 at 11:38 pm

        Seattle’s very bicycle-friendly, including all the various hills. It routinely ranks high in polls on the subject:

        http://www.bicycling.com/news/featured-stories/bicyclings-top-50

        To help maintain my sanity as an actuarial student 25 years ago I bicycle-commuted nine miles each way from Shoreline to the former Safeco Building (now part of the UW). Bicycle-friendliness is a major factor in my personal rankings.

        • March 28, 2013 at 7:30 am

          Agreed. I wish I could have biked but I was with all three kids the whole time, and only one of them bikes. If I lived in Seattle I’d definitely bike everywhere.

  2. Kostis
    March 27, 2013 at 12:16 pm

    You may also enjoy John Kay’s recent article

    http://www.johnkay.com/2013/02/27/a-story-can-be-more-useful-than-maths

  3. Leila Schneps
    March 27, 2013 at 3:59 pm

    Do I get onto your list of cool math books? :D

  4. March 27, 2013 at 10:26 pm

    Having been a New Yorker for years, though now based way west of Seattle, I admit Seattle does have some serious flaws as a city.

    This includes the very idea of sidewalk being closed. If a meteor hit NYC at the corner of 23rd and Sixth (sorry, not the AofA), they’d have scaffolding up and the sidewalks open before the sides of the crater cooled. Seattle, also, as you probably noticed has no subway. That’s always a serious flaw in any city. Seattle also has domesticated pedestrians who stop for traffic lights which leads to dangerous driving habits. NYC has true free range pedestrians, another sign of true urban civilization.

    Otherwise, glad you enjoyed your visit. (It’s still better than Houston, which, if I remember correctly, has no native word for sidewalk or pedestrian.)

  5. March 28, 2013 at 9:47 am

    Today is Grothendieck’s 85th birthday.

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