What if mathematicians wrote travel articles?

Some time ago I suggested that scientists might not always make the best writers. I guess I wasn’t the only person ever to make this profound observation. Slate has since published this piece on how political scientists would cover the news; see also here. As hilarious as these are, I would say that there’s more to the picture. The story below is inspired by this one (hat tip to Terry Tao). Believe it or not, there are actual reasons why we have to write like this sometimes. I’m as guilty as anyone. In fact, I’m in the middle of revising one of my papers right now…

In this article we describe the plane flight that Roger and I took to San Francisco. The purpose of our trip was to meet Sergey, our collaborator on the paper “The structure of fuzzy foils” (J. Fuzzy Alg. Geom. 2003) who also co-organized with me an MSRI workshop in 2005. Our main result was to arrive at the San Francisco airport at the expected time and meet Sergey there. To accomplish this, we relied on a regularly scheduled flight on a commercial airline. For the history of aviation (including commercial aviation) and the general background, we refer the interested reader to Wikipedia (see also Britannica).

This article is organized as follows. We first explain a few preliminary steps, including the travel to the airport and the check-in procedure. The main part of the trip was the actual flight, which we discuss in a new paragraph. We conclude with a few remarks on arriving at the destination airport.

We started out by searching a travel website for available flights, purchasing the tickets, and travelling to the airport by city rail. While all these steps are standard, it is perhaps worth emphasizing that thanks to the efficiency of the city rail we succeeded in arriving at the airport a full 135 minutes before the scheduled departure, which allowed us ample time to complete the remaining preparations. We expect that the readers will be interested in using this method of getting to the airport on their future trips. We also mention the HQP (Highly Qualified Personnel) training component of the first step above, namely that Roger had his 7 year old look up the plane tickets on the web and she found us a better price than we could.

We then proceeded to use our confirmation number XYZPQR to check in at the airport. To the best of our knowledge, this was the first time that this confirmation number has been used to check in on that airline, at least in our city. While we did include this number in the proceedings of Sergey’s birthday workshop, we have not submitted it to any other refereed journal, so it should be OK to put it here. Our boarding passes and luggage tags were also tagged with unique numbers; we cannot include all such technical details in this survey, but they will hopefully appear elsewhere.

Before boarding the plane, we bought tuna sandwiches at the sandwich stand in the waiting area. Readers familiar with the history of travel along our route might recall that our colleague Thomas claimed to have bought a good quality chicken burger somewhere in the same general area of the airport. We were not able to locate a burger joint there; however, we believe that tuna sandwiches are a better and healthier choice, especially if they come with lettuce and on whole-wheat bread as ours did. Another consideration is that tuna sandwiches are easier to bring on board of the plane than chicken burgers, and our trip schedule necessitated the alleviation of our hunger in the midst of the flight.

As we already mentioned in the introduction, the main component of our trip was the actual plane flight. This was a major step that required the full use of the advanced machinery of a 240-seat jet aircraft. Clearly, jet airplanes are among the most significant technological inventions of the last century. They are being used constantly all over the world, and have undergone numerous improvements and modifications over the years. For a more detailed history and description of jet aircraft, we again refer the interested reader to Wikipedia (or Britannica). It should be noted that the airline used a “4-zone” algorithm for boarding the plane. We believe that this algorithm may be improved, at least in the special case where the passenger list is the same as on our flight. We will attempt to do this in a forthcoming paper.

We concluded our flight by arriving successfully at the San Francisco airport, collecting our luggage with the uniquely numbered tags, and meeting Sergey outside the arrival area. We believe this result to be optimal: while theoretically it would have been possible for our plane to arrive ahead of schedule, in which case the flight time would have been shorter, we would have then had to wait for Sergey anyways, nullifying the overall gain.

Our trip certainly suggests new directions of research, such as investigating alternative itineraries (possibly on other airlines), exploring the possibility of connecting flights, and checking out the food stands near other departure gates. We expect that some of this work will be carried out by our graduate students in the near future.

We are grateful to Sergey and his Awesome Leadership Grant for covering our trip expenses. We would also like to thank the anonymous referee for many valuable suggestions, including telling us not to mention that the in-flight entertainment systems was not working and so we picked our noses out of boredom. We have revised our article accordingly.

Author: Izabella Laba

Mathematics professor at UBC. My opinions are, obviously, my own.

14 thoughts on “What if mathematicians wrote travel articles?”

  1. I am thinking about the exact opposite situation. What if someone tries to write scientific articles in a nonconventional way. For example, is it possible to write a article using some elements from thrilling novels? That will be interesting. Really good writting, by the way!

  2. Glad that you like it, Alex!

    Xiaochuan – I suppose that it could be done, but there’s only so far that you can go before descending into parody on the other side…

  3. This is the funniest article I’ve read recently. Prof. Laba, I did not know before you are such a funny person. 😀
    I am having a good day because I read your this paper.

  4. Nicely done! I always love seeing more examples of this genre.

    If the field of image processing is any guide, all future papers in Optimal Transportation will use the same task of flying from Chicago to San Francisco as the “gold standard” so that they can benchmark their results against the previous literature.

  5. “To the best of our knowledge, this was the first time that this confirmation number has been used to check in on that airline, at least in our city.“

    I read this and *cracked* *up*. 😀

  6. I’d like to point out to the authors that in June last year I took a plane flight from London Gatwick to Zurich [Commentarii Travelici 156, 23-32, 2010] and arrived exactly 10 minutes earlier than scheduled. Furthermore, good quality chicken burgers were available from the general area near the aiport. Although, unfortunately, I was unable to meet Sergey on arrival, our results, which included successful arrival at the destination, seem quite relevant to those appearing in your article. I was disappointed to see that my article was not cited, but I am sure this was just a minor oversight. If you are passing this way, do let me know and I can organise a colloquium talk in our “Continuous Travel” series.

  7. Strange. It works for me, and I don’t have any subscription (that I know of). I just click on the link to the pdf … If you google the title (“How to write consistently boring scientific literature”) you will find other hopefully more helpful links. Perhaps this will do it.

    Try again, it’s too good to be missed!

  8. 😦
    It’s a dead link! But when it comes out on google, it works. What’s going on?!

  9. If one wants to be a writer, I mean a serious writer that is good at it then one might choose to go to a university to get a terminal graduate degree in this discipline. If successful, one would be a Masters’ of Fine Arts. The typical exercises given to the students would be very much like the example above. For example, write a short story containing a fairy tale at its core, written in the style of midcareer Joyce discussing God and the necessity for words to create such deities sort of like the replacement axiom is necessary to keep getting anywhere.

  10. This article is great. I will share with my students in Science Writing (for the general public). I can recommend courses in creative non-fiction, such as Writing with Style or Magazine Article writing or even Travel, Food, or Science Writing, as part of a writing minor or degree in rhetoric & writing.

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