Saturday, November 24, 2012

Your tax dollars at work: Math version

I've been putting off this post for a while, thinking hard about how (even, whether) to include it, because it doesn't really fit in well with much of the theme of the rest of this blog.  But time's a-running-out, and it's getting to the point of Now or Never, and I finally decided that means Now.

The reason I've been hesitating about this post is that the money I'm going to describe is pure selfishness.  I've mentioned previously that we got a tax credit for adopting J-son, and that we get on-going support for his care, and that my husband gets moolah and perks for serving in the military.  All true.  And all of these ways that you (and your tax dollars) have subsidized my family are much appreciated, but they're side-effects, as it were.  We didn't seek out this money; we wanted to adopt a kid and to zoom around in helicopters, and the money came in without our even asking for it. 

But what I'm about to describe is different.  Because about a year ago, I asked the National Science Foundation to give me even more of your hard-earned money.  I asked, not because I need it, but because I want it.  In fact, it's not even really the money that I want, it's the cool professional prestige that comes from getting a grant proposal funded.  I told the powers-that-be that this money would help me do some cool math . . . but the truth is, I'll do that math with-or-without the money.  (The NSF knows that.  They know that I'm in it just for the bragging rights, and they know that the more money they send my way, the more bragging rights I have).

But since I got the bragging rights (thanks, NSF!), I figured I might as well 'fess up and explain what the money's for -- both from the math side, and also from the Miser Mom side.

How do you draw reflections of things
 (whether triangles, pens, or cows)?
Math side first, sort of deliberately vague:  I think that artists don't know much math, and (even worse) that mathematicians don't know much art.  When an artist tries to draw a 3-d object on a 2-d piece of paper (or computer screen or movie screen), there are lots and lots of interesting questions that come up, and some of those are good math questions.  I want to widen the bridge (made of geometry) that connects these two disciplines.  My area of math comes up with questions like these ones I've added on the side.

How do you draw shadows of things?
I think that this topic can lead to lots of new interesting research areas for mathematicians, especially now that computers are helping us to draw and to recognize objects.  I also think that this will give us a cool way to teach math to people who think they're no good at it.  Geometry rocks!

The math side is cool, but I think I'll leave it aside for now.  (If you really want to learn more, search for "mathematical perspective" -- the last time I checked, a book I helped write came up twice on the first search page).

How does an 18-year old with no art experience
learn to draw something that looks "correct" like this?
Where does your money go?
Technically it's not just me who gets this money.  I'm working on a team, and the several of us all get to split up the dough.  But first, a bunch of your tax dollars will go to the colleges/universities that hired me and my colleagues. After all, our employers give us the space and equipment to do our work, so it seems only fair that they should get to share in the prestige.  A bit more money goes to paying an "evaluator" who comes in to see whether or how well the project actually works.  Quality control is built in to the process.

But some of that money comes directly to me and to my co-conspirators in this project.  For my part, that'll amount to about two month's salary.  I'll get some of that next summer, and the other part the summer after that.  Where will that money go?  How will I spend your tax dollars?

Well, of course, I'm only guessing at this point.  But here's the current plan.  First step, as always with a windfall, is charity.  I've taken to plowing money semi-anonymously into our student math club; I've also become increasingly aware of our local food bank.  So first fruits will probably head to those two places.

And the rest, I'll sock away for 2015, when I go on sabbatical [right after the triathalon, or so she says].  The money will help me extend my sabbatical from one semester to a full year, which will in turn allow our family to spend one of those two semesters in the country of my husband's choosing:  Rwanda.

Rwanda is not a country known for its excellent math research, although I figure I'll get to teach/do some research while I'm there.  In fact, it's sort of famous for a not-so-pleasant 1994 genocide in which almost 800,000 people were slaughtered.  But apparently, since then, it's been rebuilding itself and has (this is what attracts my husband) excellent roads for bicycling.  So he thinks we ought to go there and bike around and live in a majority-black culture with our black sons, and we will ride our bicycles, and I'll do math.  And maybe that will actually happen, because after all, life is an adventure.  And maybe it won't happen, but either way, socking away that money will give us the choice.  And that's what your tax dollars will go for.


  1. Nifty! I love math. (And I LOVE that bunny pic.)

    I confess, I am not being anywhere near so selfless with my two months government funded salary this next summer. It's going to partially replace what we're losing when DH is jobless next year. Sort of a transition fund.

  2. The bunny pic I totally stole from another site long ago, and I can't find it again to give the true authors credit. I keep hoping someone will point me back . . .

    As for selfish/selfless use, I feel like I'd be getting some kind of exotic vacation. I've met a few people who have been to Rwanda recently, and they say it's GORGEOUS there. Plus, I'm guessing, it'll be cheap. Plus, it's an adventure. And joblessness for my husband is a big goal of ours. So I figure you're sharing what you have selflessly, and I'm just galavanting about! -MM