Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Math-phys Alma mater is almost like shared DNA

Last night, I enjoyed the pre-Christmas party of the Václav Klaus Institute (led by the Czech ex-president) in Café Mozart, a fancy business just a few steps from the Prague Astronomical Clock (Orloj) as well as from the amazing exchange office where you still get CZK 15 for one euro. There is a pretty Christmas tree at the Old Town Square this year – and it's nice when the place is so alive. Otherwise, in a cloudy weather, cities like Prague (or New York) suck.

The Pilsner Urquell logo and the modern Pilsner Škoda Transportation streetcars are the only pretty things in much of Prague. What else would you expect a Pilsner patriot to say?

Lots of famous people attend these events and I am much more familiar with them – political soulmates, if you wish – than I was years ago. Yesterday, among other things, I exchanged some nice and interesting words with a brilliant female economist HL, with a scholar and loyal worker of the institute ML, with the boss of bosses VK (he has worked on some exciting project) and his charming friend from Salzburg whose initials I will hide.

But most of the time, I was talking to a main father of the Czech voucher privatization DT, mild-mannered sociologist PH who was recently known as an anti-immigration politician, and with JK, an ex-mayor of Prague. They are fun folks, said lots of interesting things, and they also have had many more positions and achievements than I suggested.

One minor reason why I enjoyed it was that I picked a strategic place that was closer to the sources of food and beverages so I didn't starve like in many previous similar occasions. I've tried 8 types of food, drank 3 pints of beer and 1 wine and those things improve the mood. Just to be sure, I felt entitled ;-) because the round trip train ticket was $10 and I had to pay $1 to a very poor guy on the National Avenue – he really convinced me that he needed much more and he wasn't a fraud. So I wanted to be sure to eat and drink for more than $11.

But let me stop with these comments that I mostly mean as jokes. Of course, those weren't the reasons why I would go there (or not go there).

Most of this ecosystem of Klaus' soulmates obviously has a very different background than I do. At some similar events, I could see lots of people from the business world etc. – critics like to say that they got wealthy because of the "wild" privatization that Klaus "allowed" in the 1990s (I obviously disagree with these evaluations completely).

So in the past, I could feel there like an extraterrestrial. For example, several years ago, I could only find one natural scientist there, soil scientist and climate skeptic Mr Kutílek. Soil science is rather far from string theory ;-) but it was still very clear that among hundreds of people at that event, Kutílek's background was closest to mine.

Last night, it was different. First, I learned about some book planned by DT, the father of privatization. It's full of equations and he likes to use terms such as "maximization of Hamiltonians and potentials" etc. So it's clear that he's been close to the physics way of thinking – and despite his being an economist, his training could have been closer to mine than Mr Kutílek's was to mine. I learned lots of things about him – and his brother-physicist. (By the last night, DT has abandoned his amusing 2014 view that my having been a Harvard junior professor was just a Klaus' elaborate hoax LOL.)

But that was nothing compared to the Prague ex-mayor JK. I must have known that he's been a theoretical physicist but I have largely forgotten about it and he reminded me of some details. So despite our belonging to different generations of our Alma Mater (MFF UK, the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics at the Charles University), we knew names like Velický, Kvasnica, Janouch, Bičák, Trlifaj... I am old enough to have met most of those people he knew – and I think that these people were affecting the culture of my college even when I was there.

For example, (Slovak) Jozef Kvasnica led the theoretical physics freshman seminar in the first two months of my college years, before he died in November 1992 and was superseded by Jiří Langer. Kvasnica was a legend of a sort. Among other things, he was the 40th out of 43 students who have ever penetrated the "Landau barrier" in Moscow. Landau was always proud to "defend science against the invasion of morons" and for Czechoslovakia to have a non-moron was a source of pride by itself.

I don't know whether the "old legends" are still alive at MFF UK. But they were very alive during my undergraduate years. Newly accepted students undergo the summer camp at Albeř in Czech Canada (near the Austrian border) and the indoctrination by the specific MFF UK mythology starts there (and maybe before that camp). There is a "Booklet of the Matphysack" that teaches many important things to the students.

For example, MFF UK was founded in 1952 when legendary mathematician Dr Vojtěch Jarník proved the creation of V.I. Lenin from an ape by mathematical induction, climbed the staircase above Albertov (the place of the Faculty of Natural Sciences where mathematicians and physicists belonged before the secession), and declared himself the dean of the new Faculty of Mathematics and Physics at Karlov (above Albertov, next to the Karlov church, 100 meters from the huge Nusle bridge).

The traditional culture includes lots of not terribly flattering, self-critical tales about the geeks at MFF UK and the ugly girls of MFF UK. Needless to say, these stereotypes aren't always true. But they're true more often than what you could explain by chance. There were three girls, one of them was very ugly, the second one was blind, and the third one was also an MFF UK student. We've been exposed to lots of this stuff.

I often talk about indoctrination of the students in contemporary colleges – which I view as a bad thing. However, I do realize that all those legends that create a uniform culture at MFF UK – which differs from the "average of the society", however – are also a kind of indoctrination. As you can guess, it's an indoctrination I basically approve of.

For example, students of mathematics and physics – and especially theoretical physics where the sentiment gets amplified – do believe that social sciences are inferior and the Prague University of Economics (VŠE, where Klaus and many people from the party last night are employed) is basically a high school. Many of these semi-serious, semi-friendly appraisal of other schools exist at many places that could be considered "the most prestigious ones" at least from some viewpoint. People naturally think that the school they picked is probably better than others in some way – that's why they picked it, unless they picked it because they wouldn't have a chance to do anything else.

I think that the University of Economics (and similarly economics departments of other universities) is a rare hotbed of some conservative, or at least staunchly pro-capitalist, ideas – a feature that makes it superior relatively to many other places of the Academia (not only in Czechia). But as we agreed with JK, at least during communism, mathematicians and physicists have also enjoyed a special status that has protected MFF UK and perhaps similar schools from the distortions by the Marxist ideology. Even the communists had to have a certain respect for these "weird but apparently smart people" who are responsible for much of the progress. After all, Marxism should be built on science.

In effect, physicists and mathematicians were relatively free in their thinking and speech and they could often travel to the West rather easily. JK and me both shared a detail in the CV – both of us were automatically accepted to the college because of some victory in a mathematical or physical olympiad etc. Given my family background with uncles-emigrants on both sides, my admission to the college could be unlikely if any politically flavored person were allowed to influence the admission process. But it just didn't happen.

The communist party existed at MFF UK but it was largely stripped of the toxic content, we like to believe. As a member of the archive commission of the Academic Senate of MFF UK, I figured out that my diploma adviser (and co-author of our linear algebra textbook) had been a committee member of the communist party at MFF UK's branch in Karlín. This surprised me because he was one of the people who were clearly not sharing many of the left-wing things, especially the "modern progressive" stuff. But it was possible – and the finding didn't change my positive attitudes towards him. The local branch of the communist party at MFF UK could have defined itself by different characteristics and goals than the communist party at generic places of the country.

There are lots of – mainly humanities and/or social-scientific – departments where the adoption of the "most left-wing or progressive opinions available" is completely dominant. And there are just several exceptions. Economists are those who tend to be pro-free-market and in this particular sense right-wing. Physicists and mathematicians are those who feel strongly about the difference between the hard sciences and the soft sciences – like those "researched" at the departments where the victim culture and PC rule. Because of this version of the culture wars, this makes many mathematicians and physicists naturally oppose the "near left-wing consensus" of the Academia – for somewhat (but not completely) different reasons than what makes the economists different.

No comments:

Post a Comment