Meet Professor Aidan Sims: the Society’s new Vice-President

As announced yesterday, Prof. Aidan Sims has been appointed the new VP. I took the opportunity to pose some questions to him. -Ed

1.       When did you decide that mathematics was going to be your career, and what attracted you to the field?

It was towards the end of my undergraduate degree. I did a combined degree in maths and computer science. I thought I was going to be a coder/developer, and that there weren’t many jobs for mathematicians. Wrong on both counts! Somewhere around the end of my third year I realised that I really wasn’t a very good coder at all, and that the bit of it all that I really loved was the process of chipping away at the edges of mathematical problem, turning it over and looking at it from all directions, until my brain started to build a picture of what was going on that led me to a solution. Especially doing that collaboratively – bouncing ideas back and forth until understanding emerges. I still love it.

2.       What do you think is the most important issue facing the Society at present?

Equity, diversity and inclusivity. Not just gender equity and diversity. Equity and diversity as a multi-dimensional idea – there are so many different axes of diversity, and 2ⁿ (well, more aptly, the cardinality of a product) grows fast. Maybe if we get better at thinking of it that way, it’ll be harder for anyone to believe that their privileges are somehow the product of being in some imagined natural majority, as opposed to a product of inherited privilege and biased systems. Mathematics is for all.

3.       Where would you like the Society to be in 5 years’ time? Or perhaps 10 years’?

I’d like to see the Society more engaged with the world outside academia. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a mathematical society; but there is plenty of mathematics outside academia. I’d like to see us adjust our view of what makes someone a mathematician. If someone thinks mathematically, if they use mathematical training and thinking in what they do, they’re a mathematician. They might be a mathematician who is a teacher; a mathematician who is a public servant or a politician; a mathematician who is an artist or entertainer; or an entrepreneur or businessperson. All these mathematicians have plenty to offer the Society and we should try to connect with them more. 

4.       What is one mathematical fact or idea you would wish the broader public to know?

That statistics is complicated and that our brains don’t really have good intuition about probability, randomness, and patterns. Our brains have evolved to try to see patterns in the available data. But if you run enough random-number generators for few enough iterations (or measure enough independent variables over a small enough sample), at least one pair of them will be very highly correlated. I wish that more people knew this – knew what questions to ask themselves about the numerical/statistical data they’re presented with – and knew just how much it affects what we see and read in news and social media. In a nutshell, I wish everyone thought that this xkcd comic is as funny as I do.

Prof. Aidan Sims