Context is King

If you’ve been in any way stalking me on facebook (or the cybersphere in general) lately, you can’t have failed to notice that I have made something of a stir in the mathematical community. A lot of you have been scratching your heads and asking me what’s going on, so here it is.

Basically there’s two parts to this: the actual content of the research, and the reaction to not publicising it.

So the research: in mathematics, there exist objects called matrices. These can represent all manner of things including (but not limited to) geometric transformations, data, and random walks. In some contexts, it will be desirable to multiply these together. Many of you will have learned how to do this at school, however that method is very inefficient for  larger matrices. So my task was to find an algorithm to do it quicker than anyone else had ever found, and what I did was use the previous best and essentially do what they did again to find said algorithm. The record had stood for 20 years and I beat it.

This was a bigger deal than I realised. Around the time I finished my thesis I had become so drained by it, I was quite unwell and needed time away from it to recover (which became superseded by the need to find a job), so those factors all put together meant that there wasn’t really room for me to do any publicising.

Recently, another researcher in California was working on the same problem and, quite by chance, stumbled across my thesis and effectively used my (and probably more her own) methods to derive an even further improvement, about which I am very excited. She publicised her results, and that’s when my results were known too.

I woke up on Tuesday morning to a barrage of tweets from academics telling me my results had caused a stir. An academic at MIT had written a blog post about the new result, mentioning me, but (according to some commentors) not giving me enough credit. It was also argued that perhaps any lack of credit I was given was deserved as I did not attempt to advance knowledge by sharing my results.

The fact that even within my thesis, the result itself was still quite hard to find, didn’t help (I’m just as annoyed about this as everyone else).

Sharing your results is a big thing in academia, and especially when you consider the significance of what I did, I can understand them being upset about it.

Personally, I was unfazed by this, as I am all too aware that comments people put on the internet should not always be taken to heart (no one said anything bad about me personally anyway, though I was slightly concerned they were trying to make sweeping judgements about me based on my LinkedIn profile and my blogs [now private]).

Lessons will need to be learned, but I’m sure this will blow over soon.

But it will have to wait a bit longer, as I got an email from New Scientist magazine yesterday, asking me for an interview. I gave them one, and hopefully that will be online sometime next week. I just hope I don’t make a fool of myself…

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