Selected non-mathematics articles about or by Jonathan David Farley
15 scientists in 2005 | Fighting crime one sum at a time | How to build the perfect terrorist cell
Science and Technology in the Next Generation | BBC Radio 2008 | DNA of KKK
Preventing the rise of a 'messiah' | Wright was right | I have a nightmare
Back to the Farley page
World Have Your Say January 28, 2008
BBC Radio 5
Friday, April 4, 2008 From 2:36:00 to 2:42:00 after start of program (with some discussion continuing to 2:44:00): http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/aod/mainframe.shtml?http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/aod/fivelive_aod.shtml?fivelive/uan1_fri OR http://www.yousendit.com/transfer.php?action=download&ufid=4FDE094B2CAA8AAB.
How to build the perfect terrorist cell
Like something straight from a thriller or the TV show "24," mathematicians have figured out a model to describe the perfect terrorist cell.
Using a complicated graph technique called lattice theory, the researchers created a diagram of the best possible way terrorists should organize themselves in order to avoid crumbling when members are captured.
"A terrorist cell is like any company organizational chart, with the leader at the top all the way down to the foot soldiers," explained Jonathan Farley, a mathematician at the California Institute of Technology, "so you might imagine that to disrupt a cell, that would involve removing certain important leaders to cut off communications."
Fighting Crime One Sum at a time
Not many of you would single out the Jamaican policeman as the smartest of workers, in which case you probably haven't met Assistant Superintendent Kevin Blake.
Blake, 36 years old, has completed his first of three years study leave towards completing PhD in computing at the Univsersity of the West Indies (UWI) Mona. Attached to the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) anti-organised crime Kingfish unit, his mathematical modeling skills have been used on an experimental basis to help break-up criminal gangs.
His company, Enterprise Technology International is implementing a database it designed to connect all JCF operations and by the time he completes his doctorate, aims to have developed software to enable police to most efficiently deploy patrols.
It's the kind of thinking that contributes to the ongoing modernisation of the JCF. Already new Commissioner Hardley Lewin has announced the closure of several stations and their personnel put back on the street.
The future of Blake, a 2002 JCF graduate entry candidate, looks bright. That of organised criminal gangs, potentially less so.
"Ordered sets theory allows you to organise networks, a criminal network or a terrorist cell, and mathematically calculate the chances of successfully disrupting the cell upon capturing a number of those individuals," he explained.
The theory enables mathemiticians to determine the hierachy, inter-relationships and functions of a group. The approach was introduced to him by Jonathan Farley, Professor of mathematics at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and formerly of UWI Mona.
Farley is a leading advocate of using mathematical modeling in counter-terrorism; chiefly lattice theory, which is a combination of ordered sets and algebra.
"The idea, in a nutshell, is that people who share many of the same characteristics are grouped together as one node, and links between nodes in this picture — called a "concept lattice" — indicate that all the members of a certain subgroup, with certain attributes, must also have other attributes," wrote Farley in the New York Times.
While all this may sound like an overblown approach to policing under local conditions, the intention is simply to better allocate the JCF's scarce resources, said Blake.
Jamaica has one of the lowest ratios of police to citizen among Caribbean nations, despite having the dubious reputation of the world's highest murder rate (inadequate training resources have held up the scheduled increase of JCF personnel from 8,500 to 12,000).
Blake’s work has already contributed to the disruption of one criminal gang, which he declined to name, but outlined the process nonetheless.
"If you have a gang of say 20 persons, if you can seriously disrupt that gang by removing four or five persons then you'd want to concentrate your resources there. Not to say you're not interested in apprehending the others but with a certain amount of resources you want the best results,” he explained.
The Royal Dutch Defense Academy is one security force to have adapted a mathematical approach, using graph theory - the studying of graphs and mathematical structures - for counter-terrorism
"Jamaica would be ahead of every other country if it used order theory to fight crime," said Farley. "I cannot say (how) valuable ordered sets will be in fighting crime, but I am impressed that a man who carries a gun feels these techniques might be valuable."
YEAR 2005 IN SCIENCE: ICONS
15 people who have shaped the global conversation about science in 2005
Most of the time, the tidy abstractions of pure math have no place in a messy world away from the blackboards or the pages on which they were proved. So says Jonathan Farley, a 35-year-old award-winning mathematician at MIT. “But there’s a small part of it, maybe 0.001%,” he says, “which is useful. It just so happens, that percentage is very useful.” With this in mind, he decided, a few years ago, to apply his mathematics to fighting terrorism.
Farley, who from time to time consults for cinema and TV shows involving math, was inspired by the film A Beautiful Mind, which tells the story of Nobel Prizewinner John Nash, whose theories helped the US military during the Cold War. After watching the movie, Farley attended a talk at MIT given by Gordon Woo, a risk-management specialist who was modeling terrorist networks using simple graphs. Woo’s graphs used dots to represent individuals and lines connecting two dots to represent a relationship between two terrorists. The problem with the model, says Farley, was that it didn’t address the impact of rank, the difference between leaders and foot soldiers, on a network. He realized that a good way to answer Woo’s question—how many terrorists need to be captured before a graph becomes disconnected and a terrorist cell can be labeled inert—was to use lattice theory, the abstract study of order and hierarchy.
This idea, which Farley published in a 2003 issue of the journal Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, attracted attention from intelligence agencies and the military. Farley went on to found Phoenix Mathematical Systems Modeling, which is developing software the authorities can use to foil terror attacks. (Stefan Schmidt, a fellow lattice theorist, and Vladimir Lefebvre, a Russian who worked for the Soviets during the Cold War and is famous for his work modeling enemy behavior, were also instrumental in the new venture.) Such software would incorporate data provided by law enforcement agents and return probabilities on how successfully they had disrupted terror cells. Farley disavows 100% accuracy with such modeling. “But,” he says, “it does…give you a rational basis to consider the likelihood of whether you’ve succeeded in your past counterterrorism operations, so that you can make decisions about how you should allocate resources for the future.” This could prove invaluable to the Department of Homeland Security, which will spend over $30 billion on counterterrorism next year.
In November, Farley hosted the 2nd Conference on Mathematical Methods in Counterterrorism and hopes to soon open an institute dedicated to studying the field. Shortly beforehand, he moved to California to assume the position of Science Fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security. His work there includes describing a “perfect” terrorist cell—in other words, the most robust or difficult cell to disrupt—as well as modeling terrorism as a contagious virus that spreads from person to person. Although his research is intended to help law enforcement officials in the war on terror, Farley is careful to distance himself from any partisan disputes on how it is being fought. “This is about studying terrorism and terrorist groups,” he says. “It’s not about politics. It’s about saving lives.”
2005 AP article: Harvard professor offers services as Hollywood mathematician
By MICHAEL KUNZELMAN, Associated Press Writer
Harvard professor Jonathan Farley is an award-winning scholar, but he wouldn't mind being known as a Hollywood mathematician.
Inspired by the box-office success of math-themed movies like "A Beautiful Mind" and "Good Will Hunting," Farley figured there was a growing demand in Hollywood for experts who can make sure the numbers add up on the screen.
Farley and a colleague founded a consulting company to offer their expertise to television producers and filmmakers - and hit it big with his first client: consulting the CBS drama "Numb3rs," which stars Rob Morrow as an FBI agent who recruits his mathematical genius brother to help solve crimes.
"It's not just about fixing mathematical mistakes in the script," he said. "It's also about helping them get the culture right."
Plenty of films and TV shows employ military experts, police officers or doctors to serve as technical advisers, but Farley believes his company - Hollywood Math and Science Film Consulting - fills an unmet need.
Many movie mathematicians seem to luck into the job.
"A Beautiful Mind" director Ron Howard
hired Barnard College math professor
Dave Bayer after he read a review of the play "Proof" that Bayer wrote for the American Mathematical Society.
Before he consulted for "Good Will Hunting," University of Toronto physics professor Patrick O'Donnell was hired as an extra. A producer stopped him on the street and asked him to play a drunk in a bar scene with Robin Williams. O 'Donnell later helped actor Matt Damon with the math his character, a troubled genius, would be tackling on screen.
"Hollywood is not a math class," O'Donnell said. "Every scene was accurate, but you wouldn't learn mathematics from it."
Farley, 35, co-founded his company with Lizzie Burns, a London-based biochemist he met studying at the University of Oxford a decade ago. Farley said he and Burns are philosophically at odds over how mathematically accurate movies should be.
"To make a film really credible," Burns said, "it's important to get the science right."
Farley, on the other hand, said he knows filmmakers sometimes sacrifice scientific accuracy in the name of entertainment.
"I just think there's a way of making the science not look ridiculous, as you often find in many science-fiction shows and movies," he said.
It bugs Farley when filmmakers portray mathematicians as socially inept geeks - or even when they go to the opposite extreme, such as when Jeff Goldblum played an ultra-cool chaos theorist in "Jurassic Park."
"Mathematicians usually are kind of nerdy," Farley concedes.
Farley has recruited some of his colleagues, including Harvard postdoctoral fellow Anthony Harkin, to serve as consultants. Harkin said mathematicians love to police television programs and movies for errors. One of the most famous, he added, comes from "The Wizard of Oz."
"When the scarecrow gets his brain, he incorrectly states the Pythagorean theorem," Harkin said. "If any mathematician would looked at it, they could have easily fixed that flaw."
Farley gives high marks to the makers of "Numb3rs" for what he says is an accurate portrayal of how mathematicians work and interact with each other.
"Getting the math right is very important to our creators," said Andy Black, a researcher for the show. "We do want to have that kind of credibility."
After "Numb3rs" premiered in January, Farley e-mailed the show's producers and offered his services. He traded messages with Black, who agreed to start sending him copies of unfinished scripts. Farley won't disclose what his company is paid for their advice.
"Jonathan seemed very enthusiastic about pitching in," Black said.
Farley and Harkin check the scripts for errors, scribble suggestions in the margins and send them to Black, who passes them on to the show's head writers.
"He presents nice, concise suggestions," Black said. "It's up to the writers to implement them."
Farley and Harkin didn't start working for "Numb3rs" until after the fifth episode aired, so they are hard-pressed to cite examples of how they have left their mark on the first 10 episodes.
"It may be felt in more of the future shows," Farley said. "There are some ideas
I've sent them which they seem to have incorporated, but I don't know how the whole creative process works."
Farley said he objected to a scene where one of the main characters, an older mathematician played by Peter MacNicol, talks about his "brazen attack on the Lorenz invariance."
"I asked a string-theory friend, and he said it doesn't make sense," he said. "I told them, but they didn't change it."
Harkin cringed at a scene where Charley, the math genius played by David Krumholtz, considers asking his thesis student out on a date - a move he said would get most academics fired.
"They needed the love interest, so they kept it in," Harkin said.
The show also works closely with Gary Lorden, who chairs the math department at the California Institute of Technology. Lorden comes up with some of the formulas that Charley scribbles on chalkboards. In early episodes, one of his younger graduate student's hands filled in for Krumholtz's in close-ups.
Lorden said he sees the job as a lark, not a business opportunity.
"I grew up seeing virtually nothing about math in the popular media," he said. "I'm really hoping 'Numb3rs' spawns some imitators."
Farley and his agent Caron Knauer, a former associate producer at 20th Century Fox, are banking on that happening.
"More and more projects are featuring math on the forefront," Knauer said. "It's the Hollywood bandwagon mentality."
Farley, last year's recipient of the Harvard Foundation's Distinguished Scientist Award, and Harkin are collaborating on a screenplay of their own. They also are trying to devise - and sell - a formula that would help movie studios schedule their release dates more efficiently and profitably.
But neither plans to give up their day jobs in Harvard's math department.
"I never expected there to be 17 projects a year," Farley said. "I never even expected a show like 'Numb3rs,' where week after week they would try to use mathematics in a different way."
Farley and Harkin both hope the show inspires youngsters to consider careers in math.
"In the past, there was no better promoter of math and science than Sputnik and Star Trek," Harkin sai
2002 INTERVIEW WITH DR. JONATHAN D. FARLEY
Young, smart, ambitious---these are the words used to describe Dr. Jonathan Farley, who is the Green Party of Tennessee's candidate for U.S. Congress in 2002. His opponent will be the formidable Bob Clement. It's a David-and-Goliath story if there ever was one; but, Farley says, "David is my middle name---literally."
The 31 year-old mathematics professor at Vanderbilt University hails from Rochester, New York, but he's no carpetbagger: "I've lived in Nashville for 12.9% of my life," he quips. Farley moved here in 1997 from Berkeley, California, a hotbed of political activism.
When asked why he wants to run for Congress, Farley answers, "I don't. But I see so many issues being neglected by the Republocrats---like political prisoners, corporate welfare, universal health care---that I just can't sit back anymore."
Farley's also African-American, which makes him a minority in a minority party. When asked about that, he replies, "Black and Green make gold. There isn't a single issue concerning African-Americans that the Green Party doesn't have the right view on, whether you're talking about reparations for slavery, the Confederate flag, or statehood for D.C. When blacks realize this, they'll switch en masse to the Green Party."
Farley has impeccable academic credentials: He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard, finishing second in his class. His lowest grade was an "A-." He went on to earn a doctorate from Oxford University, where he won the top math awards. Then he moved to Berkeley, where he held a fellowship at the prestigious Mathematical Sciences Research Institute.
Farley cut his political teeth in the campaign to save affirmative action in California. (It was abolished by referendum in 1996.)
A life member of the NAACP, Farley speaks locally and nationally on topics like "How to Get Straight A's in College." Though Vanderbilt is generally known for its conservatism, Farley has brought left-wing speakers like Kathleen Cleaver, a former leader of the Black Panther Party, and white anti-Nazi activist Tim Wise, former head of the Tennessee Coalition against State Killing. Farley's heroes include the African military genius Hannibal, the West Indian psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, and Jesus.
Farley comes from an accomplished family. His father, a native of Guyana, holds a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics; his mother, who is Jamaican, has a Ph.D. in American history and is a Regent for the State of New York. Farley's three brothers are all Harvard graduates. (His brother Christopher John Farley is a senior editor and pop music critic for Time Magazine.)
In addition to his academic work, Farley has written for the hip-hop magazine The Source, the black women's magazine Essence, The Guardian (a major British newspaper), and Time Magazine On-Line. Ebony, the leading African-American magazine, named Farley a "Leader of the Future" in 2001, and Upscale Magazine ran a profile of him as well. In November, Farley was one of the invited speakers at the Stop the War rally in London that drew 100,000 people.
Farley's campaign could prove to the The One To Watch: The incumbent is a Democrat, but Farley is sure to grab the black vote and the youth vote, making him a possible "spoiler." If the Republicans field a viable candidate, the three-way race could go to anybody, possibly making Farley the first Green in Congress. (This is how Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura, a Reform Party candidate, got elected.)
One obvious problem with Farley's campaign is that he won't be in the country for most of it: He was one of only four Americans to win a Fulbright Distinguished Scholar Award to the United Kingdom. When asked about his absence, Farley smiles. "Maybe I'll cast an absentee ballot," he says.
from the web page: Vote for Farley 2002
They Hate America - in Britain
by Jonathan David Farley, D.Phil.
BlackPressUSA.com (apologies, originally we said this article was published in The Guardian)
As I write this, I sit only one mile from a people who are at war with America. They are not poor, illiterate, or Muslim. In fact, they are mostly white, Christian, and middle-class. They are students at Oxford University, in England.
Wadham College (which is part of Oxford University) declared war with the United States when America started carpet-bombing Vietnam. The stately, ancient Oxford hall boasts a well-kept, manicured lawn, which the students still call Ho Chi Minh Quad.
Of course, the state of hostilities is mostly facetious (Oxford's Trinity College and Balliol College have also declared war-against each other), but not entirely. The English philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell, one of the most renowned thinkers of the twentieth century, convened a war crimes tribunal in the 1960's, in which he accused the United States of crimes against humanity. They may not be shouting, 'Death to America,' but Brits have long scoffed at American imperiousness.
Since September 11, Americans have asked, 'How could anybody hate us so much?' And we've mostly been coming to the wrong conclusions. (Novelist Salman Rushdie recently wrote that Muslim extremists hate America because we eat bacon sandwiches! )
I'm not an eloquent writer like Mr. Rushdie; nor am I a vegetarian extremist. But as a mathematician, I can put two and two together; and, at the risk of inflaming American opinion, I'd like to opine why the British feel 'they' hate 'us.' That reason is state-sponsored terrorism.
America has long accused nations like Iraq, Sudan, and Cuba of sponsoring terrorism. But, according to ABC News, it was the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. military who, in the 1960's, drafted plans to commit terrorist attacks. 'We could blow up a U.S. ship in [Cuba's] Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba,' read one report, code named Operation Northwoods. The American people would then demand that Castro be deposed. Cold 'Worriers' still believe Castro wants to bring Americans to our knees. (I say, Bill Clinton did enough of that already.)
During the 1980's, the U.S. fought a secret war in Central America, supporting murderous regimes in El Salvador and Honduras that used death squads to terrorize civilians, murder priests and rape nuns. Many of the generalissimos who conducted this reign of terror were trained in the School of the Americas-in Georgia. Their training manuals included instructions on how to torture.
Chile's dictator, Pinochet, who specialized in dropping his political opponents out of airplanes, came to power after a CIA-orchestrated coup, during which the democratically elected president, Salvador Allende, was murdered. The Congo was plunged into forty years of chaos after the U.S.-backed dictator, Mobutu, seized power, following the murder of the democratically elected prime minister Patrice Lumumba.
The U.S. government occupied Haiti for decades and, later, supported that country's brutal dictators, the Duvaliers. It sustained the dictator of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos, even after his people overthrew him. The Shah of Iran persecuted his own people with our tax dollars; yet we pretend that Iranian anti-Americanism is unprovoked.
(I do recognize that, despite America's faults, at least we have the freedom to criticize the government. In Iran, peace activists-like my hero Martin Luther King-would be shot.)
When the U.S. stops sponsoring terrorism, and starts cracking down on terrorism at home (the KKK and the LAPD), the English may start respecting our moral leadership. As things stand, British newspapers are as likely to call George Bush 'the mad bomber' as they are Osama bin Laden. Despite British involvement in the war, 54% of Britons think the bombing should be suspended.
It's easy to dismiss anti-American mobs in brown countries. But we'd be fools to dismiss the English, our closest allies; and a significant number of them are saying, America's not at war with terrorism: It's in bed with it.
Vanderbilt Math Professor Jonathan David Farley
Jonathan D Farley, a fellow American at Oxford, questions Chelsea Clinton's appetite for war
Saturday November 17, 2001 The Guardian
* Oxford's ornately decorated town hall was brimming with people. So many people... All of them there to protest against the war in Afghanistan. Well, almost all of them.
On my way to the meeting, I had seen a group of students standing outside the hall, one of them draped in an American flag. I didn't think much of them until they came in and sat behind me. There were several men and a few women in their group - Americans, judging by their accents. At the centre of attention was a smiling girl with curly brown locks. She looks a lot like Chelsea Clinton, I thought, but I wasn't sure. Then the meeting began.
The 600-person crowd sat in rapt attention. But at one point, some of the Americans went to the front of the room with their flag, an apparent protest against peace: one of them tried to drown out the speakers by shouting. Embarrassed, I got up to move away from them.The heckling Americans, who were few in number, failed to derail the meeting, their jibes deftly countered by the speakers. Chelsea, to her credit, remained silent throughout. But, according to recent interviews with CNN and Talk Magazine, she has now broken her silence. Chelsea has said that, because of anti-American and anti-war sentiment in England, she no longer wants to "seek out non-Americans as friends". Instead, she wants to "be around Americans" - by which she means, I presume, people who support America's war against terror.
Shame on you, Chelsea. There are millions of people, every bit as American as you, who have every reason to question whether or not this is really a "war for democracy", a "war against terror" that will "keep Americans safe". I am speaking about the millions of us who are Americans of African descent, and the millions of others who oppose this war.
While many black Americans felt wounded after the September 11 attacks - indeed, only one of the 38 blacks in Congress voted against giving Bush war powers - we're far more circumspect than our white compatriots. Fully 20% of blacks opposed Bush's response, compared to only 6% of whites (64% of blacks were in support, compared with 83% whites). As bombs fell, black opposition rose. We're less enthusiastic about America's wars in the developing world because we are aware, as has often been said, that no Iraqi ever called us nigger.
Don't misunderstand me: many black Americans are remarkably patriotic. We've fought in all of America's wars. But, 20 years after we helped liberate Nazi death camps, we still could not vote in our own country. When black Freedom Riders challenged America's apartheid laws, they were firebombed and beaten. The police and FBI did not hunt down the "evil-doers" responsible for these crimes; indeed, more often than not they assisted them.
Mind you, just because the FBI broke the law in the 1960s does not mean that they're wrong about Bin Laden. But we have every right to question US "intelligence" when the same FBI and CIA now chasing Bin Laden also once trained their sights on Martin Luther King and Malcolm X (when both men were shot, the first people to rush to their sides were undercover policemen who had infiltrated their entourage).
In a country that refuses to pay reparations for slavery, the FBI spent the equivalent of $500m to "neutralise" black leaders - with frightening success, as the mothers of Black Panther activists Fred Hampton and the exiled Assata Shakur can attest. (The former was killed in his sleep in a police raid in 1969, for which the government, admitting wrongdoing, was forced to pay $1.85m in damages.) White supremacist murders and police killings have claimed the lives of thousands of blacks - most famously in the Tulsa massacre of 1921 - and the prisons house nearly one million more.
So you see, Chelsea, African Americans are not much less safe now than we were before September 11. Even if we found out who was sending the anthrax tomorrow, innocent black males in LA and New York and Cincinnati would continue to have fatal allergic reactions to bullets fired by white cops.
Are blacks expected to line up to fight the Taliban? How can we, when one of our own senators (ex-Klansman Robert Byrd of West Virginia) once vowed that he would never fight "with a negro by my side", preferring instead to "die a thousand times"? Even now, while our FBI is arresting anyone whose first name rhymes with Osama, the Klan is operating openly and legally in all 50 states. Next time you're in Tennessee, Chelsea, come visit Nathan Bedford Forrest Park, named after the founder of America's al-Qaida, the KKK. Absurdly, we're supposed to breathe a sigh of relief now that we think the anthrax was sent, not by Arabs, but by white supremacists. But why were black postal workers treated a week after the whites on Capitol Hill? Has US attorney general John Ashcroft detained 1,000 Christians without charge? Is everyone with links to Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh now under surveillance? And what terrorist-harbouring state will be bombed next - Alabama?
The charge has been laid that the left predicted a long war. "Look how they got it wrong, big-time!" as Dick Cheney might say. But this phase of the war - the massacres, continued bombing, the infighting as returning warlords reassert themselves - is far from over, let alone what is likely to happen once Bush turns his attention to Iraq. The irony is that it was the right, especially the military, which expected the Taliban regime to hold out. Last month, Donald Rumsfeld predicted that the war in Afghanistan would take "years, not weeks or months".
So the real question is: how could the military and the CIA have got it so wrong? After all, we're paying them $300bn a year to (a) predict the fall of the Berlin wall, (b) predict the invasion of Kuwait, (c) not bomb Chinese embassies when we're not at war with China, (d) not train and fund Osama bin Laden when he will later use our own weapons against us. Maybe we deserve to be laughed at, left and right, for giving the military and CIA so much money, when they've done such a hopeless job.
So, Chelsea, please do not corral all Americans into the pro-war camp. The stars and stripes your friend draped across his back remind too many of us of the bloody stripes that once laced our own. One of Bill Clinton's redeeming traits is the fact that, when he studied at Oxford, he opposed America's war. Maybe sometime, Chelsea, you will too.
· Professor Jonathan David Farley is a Distinguished Scholar at Oxford University.
A CALCULATING CAREER
Black Issues in Higher Education, Jan 3, 2002, by Kendra Hamilton
* Assistant Professor, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn., Department of Mathematics; Fulbright Distinguished Scholar, Oxford University
* Education: Postdoctoral fellow, Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, Berkeley, Calif.; D. Phil., Mathematics, University of Oxford; A.B., Mathematics (summa cum laude), Harvard University
* Age: 31
Growing up as the child of two university professors, Dr. Jonathan Farley never thought of doing anything other than teaching. However, he is finding that the biggest challenge as a young scholar is balancing both professional and social responsibilities.
"One year I noted I was on seven different committees -- the Martin Luther King Commemorative Lecture Series, the faculty adviser for the Black students association and the Caribbean students association, plus a whole host of others. Yet at the same time, I was facing the pressure to have to publish or perish," Farley says. "I made the decision to help the students."
Farley says the problems -- mathematical and otherwise -- that he has solved and his other accomplishments speak for themselves. In his short career, Farley has solved an MIT mathematics problem that had gone unsolved for 24 years, and a second problem that had gone unsolved for 35 years.
Upon his graduation from Harvard, Farley won a Marshall Scholarship for study at Oxford University in England. There he won the Senior Mathematical Prize and Johnson Prize for "the dissertation of the greatest merit" by a mathematics graduate student under the age of 25. Farley's research is in the field of lattice theory, which he describes as "abstract algebra" or the very notion of order in the abstract. Farley, who joined the Vanderbilt faculty in 1996, is a "pure" mathematician but his field has implications for engineering, physics and even epidemiology. He was one of only four people from this country to win a 2001-2002 U.S.-U.K. Fulbright Distinguished Scholar Award to Oxford University.
"The best thing for me was to get my doctorate here in England because I could have gone back to the United States," Farley says. "It may sound harsh, but Oxford gave me the top mathematics award for my research. And I'm convinced that no matter what American university I went to, I would not have been recognized."
When Farley returns to the United States later this year, he will face a different sort of challenge altogether -- Farley is the Green Party's candidate in the 2002 Tennessee Congressional race.
Before he tackles politics, however, Farley says he strongly believes his contributions as a professor outside the classroom are equally important as the teaching that goes on inside the classroom.
"What's important is the students -- showing up at their
parties, talking to them about getting straight A's, talking to
them about this war in Afghanistan. If we're no more than just
Black faces in academia, then we're useless," Farley says.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Cox, Matthews & Associates
COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group
We mathematicians seek a more elusive beauty
A Beautiful Mind is good on love and dementia but fails maths
Jonathan D Farley
Monday February 18, 2002
A few months ago, I was at a party when somebody said: "Listen to this joke: let epsilon be a large negative number..." Those of us who were mathematicians cracked up laughing; everybody else stood around looking puzzled.
I would have never have laughed at that joke 14 years ago. That was the year before I entered college, and I visited the mathematics department at Harvard University along with a few other students who, like myself, intended to major in maths. I remember two things from that visit. The first was a very strange and sheepish boy - a senior with a perpetual five o'clock shadow and wide, staring eyes, someone whom we might uncharitably call a "geek" or a "nerd". It was clear that mathematics was his entire life, and he was undoubtedly good at it. I prayed I would not become like him.
The second thing I remember is a word we used: "beauty". There were no girls present, so we weren't referring to them. There were no Monets or Rembrandts around either. We were talking about the pure, unadulterated beauty of mathematics itself. And I remember thinking: "I'll be damned if I'm ever so lost as to think of maths as beautiful."
Fourteen years later, I am wonderfully, happily lost - lost in a surreal world of the imagination, a world not merely of numbers but of shapes, of structure, of order. I even laugh at maths jokes. But unfortunately, when people ask me what I do, I don't know what to say: "I study compact disconnected topological spaces."
No, that wouldn't do. When a physicist talks, at least, about atoms and stars, his audience will nod meaningfully. An artist can show us her canvas; an economist, money and markets. We mathematicians have nothing to show. That's why the new movies about maths hold such promise. They are opportunities for others to tell our stories better than we could hope to.
A Beautiful Mind, starring Russell Crowe, is the latest film to make this daring attempt. It's the true story of John Nash, the man who set the mathematical world ablaze at 21, but went mad at the age of 30; a genius who believed he could speak with extraterrestrials and who still won the Nobel Prize (in economics - there is no prize for mathematics).
Nash, a diffident, socially awkward boy from West Virginia, dreamt up the idea that would make him famous when he was an undergraduate at Carnegie Institute. He had only ever taken one economics course. Later, at Princeton, he produced a thesis shorter than a comic book - 27 pages - which laid the foundations for the theory of games.
His theory showed how the rules we use to play poker can be applied to everything from cold war politics, to evolutionary biology, to economics. Nash's insight was to say that, whenever two parties have differing interests, they are like "players" in a "non-cooperative game".
The merits or demerits of their strategies for winning the game can be numerically calculated and compared until one finds the "Nash equilibrium", the best strategy for both players. (The Americans and the Soviets both hired mathematicians during the cold war to keep it from turning hot.)
But a genius (it's been said) is someone who has two good ideas. Nash, who dazzled his contemporaries with his quickness, went on to make seminal contributions to several "pure" fields, areas of mathematics with no current or future applicability to the real world. Until his own world fell apart.
Nash is the universal archetype of the mathematician: an erratic wunderkind on the verge of great discoveries, or madness. We see him (and occasionally her) in hit films such as Good Will Hunting, Pi, and Enigma; in award-winning plays such as Proof and Arcadia - even in Jurassic Park and Star Trek.
We are seeing more maths on film because our lives are increasingly governed by numbers - PIN numbers, credit card numbers, social security numbers.
All of this information is kept safe thanks to advances in cryptography - that is, thanks to mathematics. Just as the threats of the nuclear age thrust physics into the popular consciousness, the importance of information - and the importance of protecting it - have done the same for mathematics.
If a mathematician were to prove a theorem called P=NP tomorrow, the world's banking systems might very well collapse, and our nation's military secrets would be laid bare. (Safe encryption depends on the fact that it's hard to factor big numbers, numbers with 200 digits or more; P=NP would imply that there's a way to factor numbers - and hence crack codes - quickly.) Mathematics is what keeps us safe.
While it is gratifying to see Hollywood hunks such as Russell Crowe playing mathematicians - a sort of Gladiator meets Calculator - the beauty of mathematics is too wild to be captured by studio cameras. The real action takes place in the caverns of the mind, and the enterprise of mathematics cannot be reduced, for public consumption, to the formula boy meets girl.
Don't misunderstand me, the romance is there - the Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos preferred mathematics to sex, and the Indian genius Ramanujan counted numbers among his personal friends - but it is a people-less passion.
Like Saint Paul, we mathematicians do not care so much for this world as we do for a world invisible, a world in which we - however ordinary our lives, however failed our relationships with other human beings - are knights errant on a quest for that elusive beauty, truth.
Ironically, A Beautiful Mind, by focusing on that which can be easily filmed - love affairs and dementia - fails to capture the beauty of mathematics itself, which is spiritual. Though the screenplay is brilliant, the movie betrays the prize- winning book (of the same name) on which it is based. And A Beautiful Mind is a terrible thing to waste.
· Dr Jonathan D Farley is a Fulbright distinguished scholar at Oxford University and a Green party candidate for US Congress. A version of this column was published by Time Magazine online.
The film, A Beautiful Mind, opens on Friday.
Amazing Advisor [a blog]
In a recent Slashdot post, "Mathematicians Become Hollywood Consultants," I recognized the name of a mentor during my education at Harvard College in 1991, Jonathan Farley.
This person is truly amazing and it was wonderful to actually see what he is currently up to. This person was giving me a lot of advice, yet I didn't realize how privileged I was to know him until we parted ways. (This seems like a recurring story in my life.)
We both lived in the Mather House dormitory and had related interests in mathematics. He majored in mathematics and I majored in applied mathematics and computer science. I only knew him for a year, before he graduated summa cum laude from Harvard College and was selected as one of few selected Marshall Scholar from a nationwide competition.
He often gave me a lot of advice on academics, but it seemed like much of it focused more on pragmatics of getting an A than on actual education. He would spend his summers learning coursework that he intended to study during the school year. He recounted how he pressured professors to raise his grade to an A from an A- by presenting his stellar transcript along with stack-high paper trail of work.
He was very risk-adversed and very focused due to the fact that, as the youngest child, he had two brothers, who both entered Harvard before him but did not perform stellarly. He also had a strong educational background as both his parents were professors at the State University of New York system. He did heavy research on the grading distributions of various classes before electing them, preferring to take a lightweight "core" course in which nearly everyone receives As. He would avoided "crazy" professors-professors who have a unfair, destructive impact on GPA or who assign "unsolvable" or extremely difficult mathematical problems as homework. One such courses was the popular "Cultural Revolution," in which only three students received an A or A-, less than one percent, in a class of 200 students.
Once, I went into his dorm room and found a stack of a hundred copies of his transcripts, proudly sitting in the table. A quick observation revealed that he had all A's except for two or three A-s. I didn't actually think that his record was necessarily unique until he pointed out that he had the second highest average at Harvard (the highest average in his junior year and possibly the senior year) of his four years at Harvard. Keep in mind that half of the students (over 1600 per year) at Harvard were valedictorians of their high school, yet not one of them surprisingly had a perfect 4.0 GPA in college. (This is the one statement that I often use to dispute accusations of grade inflation; Harvard is not Stanford or Princeton.) He was bitter that the top-ranked person actually transferred into Harvard in junior year with a perfect record from another university, but had a worse record at Harvard than he did.
He shifted my view in that good performance at Harvard required not just book smarts but streets smarts as well. I think that runs through in the business world as well-that good products often require good marketing as well to succeed.
Some other unique qualities: He was a black, who defied stereotypes to excel over the rest of his class. He was very also opinionated. In his interview for the Marshall scholarship, he was asked what the US should due to end apartheid in South Africa, and he remarked that, as a US president, he would invade the country and forcibly dismantle apartheid. A quick google search also indicates that he stirs a lot of controversial views.
His stated goal was to obtain a PhD in mathematics and become a mathematics professor at Harvard. It looks like he is currently a professor of mathematics at SUNY-Buffalo, but is currently doing research at Harvard as a post-doctoral fellow and a recipient of the Harvard Foundation's Distinguished Scientist Award.
Looking at his bio, it looks like he also a Fulbright scholar in 2001, one of only four Americans to win the award. He also had a day named after him in Cambridge, MA called "Dr. Jonathan David Farley Day."
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