A first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford.
“I’m not one of the people who believes that everybody should do math. The brain is wired to do certain things, and it’s not wired to do other things, and that’s fine. But people who can do it should do it.
“I used to really avoid telling people that I’m a mathematician. They always say, ‘Oh, I’m terrible at math!’ That’s nice. I’m sure I’m terrible at something as well.
“Americans have been bred with this idea that if you want something and you work hard enough, you can get it. That’s patently not true with certain things. I had this student who was a really sweet kid. He’d been to a very poor high school, and he’d been top of his class pretty much because he didn’t get shot or take crack.
“But he couldn’t read or write very well. He certainly couldn’t do math. And he was determined to be an aerospace engineer. He ended up dropping out. If you’ve been told that if you try hard enough you can do anything, when it turns out that’s not true, how are you supposed to deal with it? In Australia, the attitude is more: ‘Give it a go. Do your best.’
“I’m from Melbourne. Australia doesn’t have a lot of academic jobs, and it’s a very small mathematical community. In contrast, there’s a huge number of mathematicians in the U.S. from all around the world. I did my post-doc at Oklahoma State, and then I got offered a job at Loyola. I’m really amazingly happy to be out of Oklahoma, but I genuinely like Chicago.
“The U.S. has the Puritan thing, which seems to manifest as needing to do something important and tell you about it all the time. It’s not so bad in the midwest, which is nice, because it’s less stressful. Also, I’ve discovered that Americans don’t know that the rest of the world thinks they have no sense of irony or sarcasm. But sarcasm is alive and well in the midwest, which I appreciate.
“A Chicago tradition I’ve latched onto is the fine, fine liqueur called Malort. People were talking about it as this mythical thing in hushed tones, and then I had it, and I was like, ‘Oh, it’s kind of good.’ I think it’s really funny that having a shot of Malort is this ridiculous manly ritual in Chicago. I’d prefer to have it with something else, but I’ll happily sit down and sip a glass of it. It’s really uneventful to watch me drink Malort.
“If it’s going to be in shot form, I like to have it with Green Chartreuse—an herbal liqueur made by French monks. Its finish is kind of sweet. To counteract this, I half-and-half it with Malort, because Malort doesn’t taste like anything on the front. It’s only when you swallow that it sort of adheres to your tongue and becomes really bitter. It’s an experience, and I think it’s a great experience.”