Advices for dealing with a math bully
Most mathematicians are nice and wonderful people who enjoy making
friends and sharing mathematics. However, just as in
any community, there exist
A math bully is far worse since the playing field is not level.
Among the bullies, some are loud-mouthing and some are showing off.
Just came back from a European meeting and ran into a senior malicious
bully of the worst order.
This is for dealing with a horrible type of human being who happens to be a mathematician.
To minimize the negative impact, be prepared and
build up your defenses.
Don't be intimidated!
For convenience, we will use the notation "BP" to denote a sample of
a math-scrooge. First we will analyze BP and
then give some suggestions as to how to deal with BP.
Here are some possible reasons that BP behaves so badly:
Here are some suggestions for dealing with BP:
BP might be a known mathematician who has not been treated so well
at his institution.
He most likely has not proved a good enough theorem to remove his sense of
insecurity so he behaves badly to hide his inadequacy.
Mathematics is huge and has more than enough room for anybody to
pursue his/her research.
However, BP feels threatened when your work is close to his area
and he believes that his approach is the only right way.
Therefore he reacts badly by assuming that mathematics gives him the right
to criticize other's work. It doesn't. Arrogance is not equal to being right.
Treat it as a bad dog barking.
Some BP has an ego larger than what can be accommodated in any room.
It is fun to watch two BPs run into each other. BP has too much respect for
himself and therefore no respect for others.
A BP usually has narrow one-track mind and consequently views things with
the kind of righteousness that defies
civility and courtesy.
They are not "nerds" who are smart and not bothering others.
BP has mathematical tunnel vision but can't help imposing on others.
Putting others down:
BP thinks that by putting other people down he might lift himself up.
For example, this sample of BP that I just ran into
said "X has done nothing ..." but X just received a huge prize and
is absolutely the top in our area. So, you are in very good company if
you are being put down by such a BP.
Smart but not smarter:
The BP probably
has good IQ but has mistakenly assumed the right to
insult anyone who he perceives as not as smart as he is.
It is a big world out there and there is always some one smarter.
Each person has different speed and strength.
In particular, if the BP has still any brain, he won't be so self-destructive
by destroying any good will left.
BP can't say your definition is wrong.
It is helpful to point out the history or other terminology, but an author
can give a definition in the way that he/she believes appropriate.
In math, it is perfect alright to create your own universe.
BP might not like it but you are not wrong.
BP can't pick on your typos.
Of course, one should
try to eliminate errors. This BP has numerous typos in every
one of his books. Anyone can make mistakes.
BP can't trivialize your results. One saying is that any proven theorem
is trivial. Some of the most quoted and useful results are almost trivial.
Doing research is pushing the edge of knowledge and building on the
shoulders of giants. Even a little bit further could mean a great deal.
The impact of research can only be judged by the test of time.
BP can't attack your references. This BP could get very upset if
he didn't find his papers among your references.
According to this BP, he invented
the whole field of X-graph theory and he usually neglected to reference the real
sources himself (out of his belief that he himself did it all alone).
BP can't talk down your affilated institution.
This BP was bought out by not-so-much money to work at a fourth rate college and
never had a real offer from a decent place.
He likes to hang around at the old place that he deemed respectable.
There is a different philosophy that is worthy of mentioning.
Trying to rub off the glory of an established place is not
the preferred way, according to
one of my friends, who previously turned down offers from
some top places to go to a place to make a differnce.
``Excellence'' is where you can make an impact so that the world around you is a better place.
Learn your math solidly step by step. Use concrete examples.
If you get into a "discussion" with a BP, you have facts to
Math is huge. No body knows every thing so no one is dominating.
Each person has different strengths and sees a problem in a different way.
The scrooge is the exception, not the mean.
Most mathematicians help each other, especially the young.
A truly great mathematician does not have any of
the above traits. So, anyone who behaves like a BP is not a great mathematian.
Don't take a BP seriously.
With such a BP personality, just imagine what his students and family have
to put up with. Be so happy that you only run into him at a conference.
If you are unfortunately at the same institution as a BP, try to walk down
a different hall way. If your office is in the same area, try to treat him
as the thin air.
In the worst case, if you happen to be the advisee of a BP (and it is too
late to switch), you are bound
for "sainthood" after your training. Indeed, I know some wonderful people who came
from the same place as a known BP. They are, by definition, really
What if the BP calls out and interrupts your talk? This happened to quite a few
folk's talks at the conference I just attended.
If this happens, you have the platform and audience. Just
brush him off to a later time for explanations. Don't waste your energy to be
mad or get distracted.
Do math for your own enlightment. Treat a BP like an ugly little rock that you kick
along the way.
Back to "Words on research for graduate students".