The Accidental Mathematician

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.