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Thursday, September 03, 2015


I recently watched the movie Whiplash, about a college jazz band director, Fletcher played by J.K. Simmons, who torments his musicians to force them to be their best. The movie focuses on a drummer, Andrew, which makes for a great audio/video feast but in its essentials Whiplash is a story of a professor and his student.

I can imagine playing the role, “Do you think your proof is correct? Yes or No? Are you applying Toda’s theorem correctly or are you using the same crazy logic your dad used when he left your mom?” OK, maybe not.

Nevertheless Fletcher has a point. Too often I’m seeing graduate student doing just enough to get a paper into a conference instead of pushing themselves, trying to do great work and still not being satisfied. Fletcher says the two most dangerous words in the English language are “good job”.  While that might be a little cruel, we do need to push our students and ourselves to take risks in research and be okay in failing. To roughly quote John Shedd and Grace Murray Hopper, "the safest place for a ship is in the harbor, but that’s not what ships are for."

Whiplash had a different kind of scene that definitely hit home. Andrew could not impress his family with the fact that he was lead drummer in the top college jazz band in the nation. I’ve been there, trying to get my mother excited by the fact that I had a STOC paper early in my career. "That's nice dear".


  1. Nick Feamster pointed out to me that Whiplash was directed by Damien Chazelle, son of Princeton algorithms professor Bernard Chazelle.

  2. Of course the difficulty is often balancing this with Uri Alon-esque nurturing of scientists.

  3. I think those graduate students just imitate their role models who often also just do enough to get a paper into a conference instead of pushing themselves.

  4. In a different but related context, I have always wondered about what it would be like if we had "math camps" (or "complexity theory camps") that emulate what sports camps do for elite young athletes. In particular, I read an article about how the top high-school tennis players play 4+ hours of tennis a day, 6 days a week, all year round, or how Olympic ice-skating hopefuls practice similarly. School work is on the side, not the priority. What would it be like if we had our top math students doing math 4 hours a day, with English/history/etc. being done on the side?

  5. so you watched the whole thing eh? it reminds me of that movie "devil wears prada". avoided the whiplash movie so far, the trailer seemed disturbing, like a variant of mind control outside of a religious cult setting. workaholism to the point of obsession/ near mental illness.

  6. It is a Great Truth that "we do need to push our students and ourselves to take risks in research and be okay in failing". The obligate dual Great Truth is articulated in the mathematician Jean Dieudonné’s often-hilarious (yet entirely serious) article "The work of Nicholas Bourbaki" (1971), which received the Paul R. Halmos — Lester R. Ford Awards, given for “articles of expository excellence,” from the Mathematical Association of America.
    "Here is my [Bourbaki’s] picture of mathematics now. It is a ball of wool, a tangled hank where all mathematics rects upon one another in an almost unpredictable way. Unpredictable, because a year almost never passes without our finding new reactions of this kind. And then, in this ball of wool, there are a certain number of threads coming out in all directions and not connecting up with anything else. Well, the Bourbaki method is very simple—we cut the threads. […];

    If I had to make an evaluation I should probably say that the most ingenious mathematics is excluded from Bourbaki, the results most admired because they display the ingenuity and penetration of the discoverer. […];

    Bourbaki can only and only wants to set forth theories which are rationally organized, where the methods follow naturally from the premises, and where there is hardly any room for ingenious stratagems.


    Open Question  How many STEAM professors advise their students to write Bourbakian theses in which "theories are rationally organized, methods follow naturally from premises, and there is hardly any room for ingenious stratagems"?

    Working answer  Alike in medicine, science, and engineering, a reasonable answer is "not nearly enough".