Piper Harron discusses her artistic and wonderful math Ph.D. thesis
Piper Harron is a mathematician who is very happy to be here, and yes, is having a great time, despite the fact that she is standing alone awkwardly by the food table hoping nobody will talk to her.
Piper, would you care to write a mathbabe post describing your thesis, and yourself, and anything else you’d care to mention?
When Cathy (Cathy? mathbabe?) asked if I would like to write a mathbabe post describing my thesis, and myself, and anything else I’d care to mention, I said “sure!” because that is objectively the right answer. I then immediately plunged into despair.
Describe my thesis? My thesis is this thing that was initially going to be a grenade launched at my ex-prison, for better or for worse, and instead turned into some kind of positive seed bomb where flowers have sprouted beside the foundations I thought I wanted to crumble. My thesis is that thing I got sick of just when I should have been fine-tuning its organization. It’s where I find typos that have already gone to print. I am a writer; don’t ask me about my writing.
Describe myself? For 7 years I called myself an escaped graduate student. I laughed and made light, but each passing month increased my shame burden. Having kids made it easier to throw my hands up like I was okay with things and not at all failing, but I was never okay. I’m still not okay. After my defense, I had to fill out an exit survey. They asked how many years spent on coursework (3), how many years spent on dissertation (10). TEN YEARS?! WHAT KIND OF PERSON SPENDS TEN YEARS ON ONE DOCUMENT AND STILL HAS TO BUILD UP COURAGE TO DISCUSS IT OPENLY?
When I entered graduate school, I was a sponge for external pressures. Please tell me the rules I must abide by in order to make no waves! Which jokes should I not find offensive? Oh, am I here because of Affirmative Action? Oh, am I here because I’m a woman? Oh, am I here because of a mistake? Okay, haha, I get it. Oh, do my friends think I took the spot of someone who deserved it more? That’s okay. It’s okay if my friends think that. Then there was the actual math. Funny story, I was exceptionally behind my peers when I got to Princeton. I’m tired of talking about it. I should have made myself a Tshirt that said “I only took 7 math classes before coming here, and my peers took 20 – 30, so that’s great.” Funny story, my brain is evidently unusual among mathematicians. Namely, I don’t understand anything they say. I’m strangely literal and I don’t go for hand waving. At all. I can’t just understand the forest, I also need the trees, and the leaves, and the space between, and I need to be able to go forwards and backwards logically between it all. The way people talk to you when you don’t understand what they’re saying. It’s its own terrible language and I had to listen to it for years.
In my second year, my body temporarily lost the ability to properly deal with sugar. I don’t know if this is a thing. My doctor never really figured it out even after she got “really scientific about it.” Whatever it was, I realized stress had sent me to the hospital and I was thoroughly against that on principle, so I gave up stress. This decision seemingly cost me everything. I escaped without graduating in 2009. I had my first child in 2011. I became a conscious feminist. After decades and years of absorbing all the rules, a black teenaged boy was shot dead for no reason and his assailant was found not guilty because black boys are scary. I became consciously anti-racism. Two months later I threw out my previous draft and started on my thesis grenade.
Anything else I want to say? I hope people read my thesis. I hope people who don’t know what research math is like will see that it is not so alien, that it can be accessible, and will make fewer assumptions about who should go into math. I hope graduate students will read it and realize that they are not alone. I hope it could help them be more aware of various and unfair pressures they might be under, so that they could navigate the waters without internalizing things too much (not too much to ask, right?!). I am thrilled at the idea that mathematicians might read and enjoy my thesis, but I didn’t write it for them.
I’d like to say something really important about how to make everything better. Can I get back to you on that?