In a colleague’s research grant proposal, under a heading about resources and equipment, he wrote something along the lines of:
All a mathematician needs is some paper, some pens, good access to online journals, and most importantly, a quiet place to work.
Of course, we also rely on good coffee, a buzzing environment of enthusiastic colleagues, natural light, and administrative support.
For other disciplines, lab equipment and technicians are extremely important, and not having the best equipment would severely cripple an experimental chemist, for example. So if you needed to find a way to stifle the progress of a group of mathematicians, what changes to their work environment would you make?
- You could take their blackboards/whiteboards away, but they might be just as happy with their endless supply of foolscap paper.
- You could take their paper away. This is difficult to do, as paper is easy to buy and very cheap. Mathematicians would bring their own paper, or just write on their desks and other flat surfaces.
- You could take their pens away. Again, pens are cheap and easy to buy, so it would be difficult to outlaw pens in the workplace. And anyway, where would you draw the line? Pencils, chalk, and crayons would have to be outlawed too.
Perhaps the best way is to create tension within the group, and somehow put in place a situation where the ambient noise in the workplace was disruptive and unpredictable. For those who wear headphones, they would need to be distracted by visible movement in their periphery. How can this be done effectively? Even more insidiously, we could create an environment that would increase the rate of infection due to colds, influenza, or other airborne viruses. Have you tried to solve a difficult mathematics problem whilst your head is congested and your joints feel like jelly?
So I leave the question to you: how can you create a work environment that not even a resource-minimalist mathematician can bear? To summarise:
- it needs to organically create tension between colleagues,
- it needs to be cost efficient,
- it needs to be noisy,
- it needs to have visual distractions,
- it needs to foster airborne viruses.
I can only think of one solution to this problem. What is your solution?