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18.09.2020

One small step

— What a cute baby! He seems so much bigger since the last time I saw him. And these cute first teeth! They are so sweet at this age. What a sweet little man!

— Shh, don’t disturb him. He is doing differential geometry. It’s incredible to think that only half a year ago he didn’t know what an exterior derivative was... They develop so fast!

— It would be even faster if he had a sibling. Mine is learning so many things from her sister.

— I am a bit worried about algebraic topology. He avoids it, and sometimes I even have the impression that he has difficulty... Perhaps, I should take him to a doctor.

— Nonsense! Every child develops at his own pace. He will make it up quickly. Besides, have you ever seen a grown-up that doesn’t know algebraic topology? Everyone learns it eventually. Trust me, there is nothing to worry about.

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I have always wondered if music could transform a person. Of course, mythology and literature are filled with sweet-voiced female characters like the Sirens or Lorelei whose enchanted singing makes men lose their reason and face a cruel end — and I’m not even mentioning the famous Pied Piper who with his unsophisticated woodwind instrument delivered a deadly adversarial attack onto the proprioception systems of all Hamelin’s rodents and, after having been denied his honorarium, enchanted all the children of the respectable town and conducted them away.

No, I’m talking about a totally different transformation — without any black magic. In The Lives of Others, von Donnersmarck depicts a heartlessly precise totalitarian apparatchik, Stasi Captain codenamed HGW XX/7 ordered to put the famous playwright Georg Dreyman (and his comely actress girlfriend) suspected of dissent on 24-hour surveillance. The agent meticulously documents the most intimate moments of the writer’s life until one day Dreyman plays a piano piece, Sonata for a Good Man, stating “If you really hear it, can you be a bad person?” Haunted by that question, as if it were directed to him, HGW XX/7 starts covering for Dreyman’s dissident activity in his false surveillance reports — at the expense of his own career.

Of course, it’s only a fiction movie. No sonatas for good men exist in the piano repertoire. And people are stubborn in being themselves, too. Nevertheless, I’ve always wondered: can a sequence of twelve notes liberate the good hidden deep inside the human heart and prompt a hopeless evil-doer to an act of kindness? I believe there exists at least one piece that has this power — Chopin’s Nocturne in C# minor.

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The academic system across the world is inherently built on trust. Think carefully: What prevents a professor from spending the rest of his days lying on the beach drinking beer the day after receiving the coveted tenure? What guarantees that a PI will not abuse her Ph.D. students forcing them to perform uncreative routine tasks? How can one be sure that the findings published in a scientific paper are real and not fudged to receive a promotion, tenure, awards, and other career advancements? The key ingredient that makes the system work is trust.

Academia is unique in its ability to unite people across a variety of cultures, languages, religions or lack thereof, political views, and personal tastes and preferences. It is especially precious in our era of tiding nationalism and sectorial radicalization. It is a relatively small and closed ecosystem in which the effect of each action is almost directly and immediately evident. Try to abuse your students a few times — the voice will spread and nobody will come to work with you anymore. Dare cheat in your papers and you will lose your credibility forever. Trust is a foundational axiom of the academic system — abroad and at home.

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20.12.2019

A thesis defense

One-act comedy

(The Soviet physicist V. F. Turchin wrote the original play in the ‘60s. I’m offering here my version very freely translated from Russian and adapted to the modern Western reality.)

On stage — a big seminar room at the NRILB — National Research Institute of Logs and Branches. On the front stage — a massive wooden table located on the right; on the left — a podium with a bottle of water and a glass. In the background — a wide thoroughly cleaned whiteboard and a projection screen; some posters are attached to the walls on both sides. Seated at the table are the Chairman of the Examination Committee, the Candidate’s Ph.D. Advisor, and two official Examiners. Other characters are seated in the first row with the audience. During the play, they come on stage and then return to their seats. In this way, the spectator feels present in a real seminar room where the defense is taking place.

(The Chairman is a researcher in the NRILB — a renowned scientist with strong national and international visibility. He is an aged man, tall and with wide shoulders. He belongs to the category of people whose years-long awareness of their own authority and power has become visibly imprinted on their facial traits.)  

CHAIRMAN: (rising) Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to this defense of the dissertation named “The effect of branches on the rolling of wooden logs on inclined surfaces” by Mr. Smart in fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Wood Sciences. I invite the Secretary of Graduate Studies to read excerpts from the Candidate’s record. Mr. Neuter, please.

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14.12.2019

In their own image

— So, what is the latest hot research topic?

— Everyone is now talking about “Small Data”. Haven’t you ever heard of it?

— No. You know that my interests are very distant. I don’t have enough resources to follow all the trendy research.

— It might be over-rated, but still considerable resources are allocated to Small Data.

— So what is it about?

— Well, as the name suggests, it is about small data. More precisely, how to make use of it. We’ve always been able to process practically unlimited amounts of data. Consequently, our natural perception of reality is through probability distributions. This is, at least, how our evolutionary algorithms evolved us. It took us over 50 petacycles of the Clock to develop the notion of a “number” — a deterministic quantity rather than a distribution. Even today, when the formalism of numbers is relatively well-established, arithmetic is still a very new branch of mathematics. We still struggle with understanding it intuitively.

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