The Stothers Situation

It seems fitting that our pub quiz team “The Stothers Situation” reformed last night for the first time in over a year. “But how did it get its name?”, I hear you cry. Luckily, thanks to Facebook’s on this day feature, the answer came exactly five years ago today…

I woke up that day to a lot of Twitter notifications from academics asking me about my PhD thesis- confused, it emerged that a theoretical computer science lecturer had been writing about it. Fortunately, my twitter was private at the time and they were spared puns and inane ramblings about adverts (which might have killed this story stone dead).

It emerged that someone else had improved on the result of my PhD thesis ( you can read about it here and here ) and had cited me frequently. This was an important result, but so was mine: the question arose as to why my work wasn’t so well known. I was told frequently it was an extremely important result: I knew this, but the year prior, my first priority was to finish my studies. On finishing I felt so drained and upset by the whole experience that I sunk into a depression and couldn’t face writing a paper on it and publicising it. With the exception of doing a bit of tutoring to pay the bills, I stayed away from the academic side of things and, when I felt better again, concentrated on finding a job and spending time building on my fragile faith.

However, neither Prof Aaronson, nor the many commenters on his blog knew any of this. From their point of view, I had done this amazing thing and just not bothered to tell anyone, so the comments questioning my motives, analysing my blog posts, and accusing other academics of withholding information. I couldn’t let this slide, so I had to intervene.

Rather than wade into the discussion myself, I decided to email Prof Aaronson telling him what had happened- I didn’t mention everything (I didn’t want details of my being depressed put all over the internet) but I tried to be gracious to him as he was not aware of all the facts. He understood and promptly apologised for anything he said that could be interpreted as a slight against me.

As my LinkedIn profile was at that point essentially an online CV, many of the commentators were amused that the Matrix Multiplication achievement was written in the same paragraph as rather more mundane things like my Word and Excel skills being improved over the course of my PhD- I was told that this would have me go down in scientific folklore (someone made comparisons to somebody finding the value of π and learning Sanskrit verse along the way: such a thing was not a fair comparison but point taken).

Anyway, during the melee of comments on the blog, Henry Cohn, one of the researchers who I cited frequently in my thesis wrote this:


Someone brought it up in the Facebook comments, it stuck with the other team members (who deserve as much credit in this story for helping me get through the whole thesis ordeal), and that is the story of  how “The Stothers situation” got its name.

As an epilogue, along with his wife, he visited Edinburgh the following July (on my birthday, as it happens) and bought me the beer (actually a Diet Coke as I was driving later) he’d promised me for the “trouble” he caused me, and the paper has now been published. A fitting end.

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