Lecturer Quotes
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1985
Overheard at a supervision:
"Supervisor: Do you think you understand the basic ideas of Quantum
Mechanics?
Supervisee: Ah! Well, what do we mean by "to understand" in the
context of Quantum Mechanics?
Supervisor: You mean "No", don't you?
Supervisee: Yes."
The Tautology prize goes to the lecturer who uttered the gem:
"If we complicate things they get less simple."
This year's modesty award is given for a phrase spoken by a lecturer after
a rather difficult concept had just been introduced.
"You may feel that this is a little unclear but in fact I am
lecturing it extremely well."
Overheard at last year's Archimedeans' Garden Party:
"Quantum Mechanics is a lovely introduction to Hilbert Spaces!"
1986
>From an algebra lecture:
"A real gentleman never takes bases unless he really has to."
>From the same lecturer:
"This book fills a well needed gap in the literature."
And another encouraging book review:
"This book is only for the serious enthusiast; I haven't read it
myself."
Two quotes from an electrical engineer (but former mathematician):
"...but the four-colour theorem was sufficiently true at the time."
"The whole point of mathematics is to solve differential equations!"
And, as a contrast,a quote from a well known mathematician/physicist:
"Trying to solve [differential] equations is a youthful aberration
that you will soon grow out of."
While on the subject how about this fundamental law of physics heard in
General Relativity this year:
"Nature abhors second order differential equations."
A perplexing quote from a theoretical chemist:
"...but it might be a quasi-infinite set."
What is a "quasi-infinite set"? Answers on a strictly finite postcard,
please. An engineer actually gave an answer to the question of
"quasi-infinite" sets:
"It's one with more than ten elements."
And they wonder why buildings fall over... This year's Modesty Prize is
awarded to the lecturer who said:
"Of course, this isn't really the best way to do it. But seeing as
you're not quite as clever as I am - in fact none of you are anywhere near
as clever as I am - we'll do it this way."
>From the same lecturer:
"Now we'll prove the theorem. In fact I'll prove it all by myself."
And from a particle physics course:
"This course will contain a lot of charm and beauty but very little
truth."
A comparison between the programming languages BCPL and BSPL:
"Like BCPL you can omit semicolons almost anywhere."
At the beginning of a course it is important to reassure the audience
about how straight-forward the course is and about how good the lectures
are going to be. But what about this quote
from the beginning of the Galois Theory course:
"This is going to be an adventure for you...and for me."
Or this one from Statistical Physics:
"At the meeting in August I put my name down for this course because
I knew nothing about it."
In the middle of the Stochastic Systems course the lecturer offered this
piece of careers advice:
"If you haven't enjoyed the material in the last few lectures then a
career in chartered accountancy beckons."
1987
>From a supervisor:
"Any theorem in Analysis can be fitted onto an arbitrarily small
piece of paper if you are sufficiently obscure."
No matter how elegant a course is there will always be occasions when a
certain about of arithmetic is called for:
"I just want you to have a brief boggle at the belly-busting
complexity of evaluating this."
A lecturer recently started to use RUNES in his course! His justification:
"I need an immediately distinguishable character...so I'll use
something that no-one will recognise."
>From a Special Relativity lecture:
"...and you find you get masses of energy."
It's nice to see the general-purpose 'nobbling constant' making a welcome
return to Cambridge lectures:
"This must be wrong by a factor that oughtn't to be too different
from unity."
Renormalisation holds no fears for this lecturer of Plasma Physics:
"...and divergent integrals need really sleazy cutoffs."
In the true style of Cambridge Maths Tripos we have the following:
"Proof of Thm. 6.2 is trivial from Thm. 6.9"
Can anybody guess the context in which the following is correct?
"This theorem is obviously proved as 13 equals 15."
Why do mathematicians insist on using words that already have another
meaning?
"It is the complex case that is easier to deal with."
And from various seminars in the King's College Research Centre:
"...the non-uniqueness is exponentially small."
"I'm not going to say exactly what I mean because I'm not absolutely
certain myself."
"It's dangerous to name your children until you know how many you
are going to have."
"You don't want to prove theorems that are false."
And that last one wins the Sybil Fawlty Prize for "Stating the Bleeding
Obvious". A slightly more honest version of "The student can easily see
that...":
"If you play around with your fingers for a while, you'll see that's
true."
Suggestions are welcome on the meaning of this:
"If it doesn't happen at a corner, but at an edge, it nonetheless
happens at a corner."
In a Complex Variables course a long, long, LONG time ago a lecturer
wanted to swap the order of an integral and an infinite sum...
"To do this we use a special theorem...the theorem that says that
secretly this is an applied maths course."
I never name my lecturers but he's now head of the Universities Grant
Commission. And a lot of universities would like to swap him for an
infinite sum. From an Algebra III lecturer:
"If you want to prove it the simplest thing is to prove it."
This year's Honesty Prize goes to the natural sciences supervisor, who
replied to a question with
"Don't ask me. I'm not a mathmo."
And from Oxford...
"This does have physical applications. In fact it's all tied up with
strings."
1988
Good heavens, do I see a lecturer actually noticing the existence of his
audience!
"Was that clear enough? Put up your hand if that wasn't clear
enough. Ah, I thought not."
Snobbery or what?
"In the sort of parrot-like way you use to teach stats to
biologists, this is expected minus observed."
Also from statistics:
"I too would like to know what a statistician actually does."
"We're not doing mathematics; this is statistics."
"You could define the subspace topology this way, if you were
sufficiently malicious."
"You mustn't be too rigid when doing Fluid mechanics."
Talk about ulterior motives...
"This handout is not produced for your erudition but merely so I can
practice the TeX word-processor."
>From a Part 2 Quantum Mechanics lecture:
"Just because they are called 'forbidden' transitions does not mean
that they are forbidden. They are less allowed than allowed transitions,
if you see what I mean."
>From an IBM Assembler lecture:
"If you find bear droppings around your tent, it's fairly likely
that there are bears in the area."
>From a 1B Electrical Engineering lecture:
"This isn't true in practice - what we've missed out is
Stradivarius's constant. For those of you who don't know, that's been
called by others the fiddle factor..."
One from a 1A Engineering maths lecture:
"Graphs of higher degree polynomials have this habit of doing
unwanted wiggly things."
"Apart from the extra line that's a one line proof."
"This is a one line proof...if we start sufficiently far to the
left."
A slight difficulty occured with geometry in an Engineering lecture one
day:
"This is the maximum power triangle."
said a lecturer, pointing to a rectangle. This year the Computer
Scientists seem to be in the running for the Honesty Award:
"Sorry, I should have made that completely clear. This is a
shambles."
>From a Computer Sciences Protection lecture:
"Who should be going to this lecture? Everyone...apart from the
third year of the two-year CompSci course."
Oh those poor CompScis...
"I'm not going to get anything more useful done in this lecture, so
I might as well talk."
later followed by...
"Well there you are, one lecture with no useful content."
Three from a NatSci Physics lecturer:
"You don't have to copy that down - there's no wisdom in it - it
only repeats what I said."
"We now wish to show that they are not merely equal but _the same
thing_."
"And before I leave this subject, I would like to tell you something
interesting."
>From a first year chemistry lecture some personal problems of the
lecturer:
"Before I started this morning's lecture I was going to tell you
about my third divorce but on reflection I thought I'd better tell my wife
first."
>From a _single_ research seminar at the King's College Research Centre:
"I'm sure it's right whether it's valid or not."
"WARNING: There is no reason to believe this will work."
"Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead."
"I can see T is tending to infinity for you as well."
"If I am incomprehensible then stop me, but if it's simply wrong
then I don't think that it matters."
>From a supervisor:
"It's a standard question, made a bit harder by adding some A-level
stuff."
An introduction to the summation convention:
"If you've got a problem with this then go back, write the whole
thing out using sigma notation and convince yourself that it's better not
to have problems."
And from the University of Bath...
"A one by one matrix has one column and one row, and the same number
in both. "
"Using some hand-waving and symmetry ideas... "
"You haven't written it in green - your notes will be wrong. "
"Any Questions? [pause] You all look asleep - what is it,
hyperglucocemia? Too much sugar on your cornflakes? Not any cornflakes?
Never mind - I'm bright eyed and bushy
tailed, so let's continue."
Meanwhile, back in Cambridge...
"This is known as the 'Toytown solution'. Actually, there is a more
technical term for it ..."
And from the DPMMS common room...
"Of course this is true for more general values of 5"
"Not so much a double coset table, more a pile of junk"
...what do they put in the coffee?? From an applied maths supervisor (a
part III student):
"All numbers are totally irrelevant, unless you're doing
Astrophysics."
"However well you do [in your Tripos exams] you always find there's
someone from Trinity who's beaten you."
I'm told that countability isn't taught in IA anymore. It doesn't seem to
have been taught to this Part III lecturer at all!
"Damn! I'm running out of integers!"
1989
Anonymous supervisor, talking about Relativistic Electrodynamics:
"There are some bits at the end of the course I don't really
understand, but the students don't normally get that far."
>From an EIST lecturer:
"When you stick your fingers in the mains, its not the imaginary
component which you will feel"
>From substitute lecturer, replacing the scheduled appearance by Dr. X:
"Good morning. For those of you who don't know me, I am not Dr. X; I
am Dr. X's representative on Earth."
And from my source in Bath...
"Now, I want you to look very carefully at what we have just proved.
What we have just proved is false." [slight pause while what he has just
said sinks in] "Oh dear, that's going
to go onto the computer, isn't it."
[ Fame at last! ] Lecturer to a 1st year problem class:
"I'll give you a clue - it begins with `f' and rhymes with
`factor'..."
"The object of this lecture is to frighten half of you away."
"I wrote my first program in 1954, and that didn't work either."
"That is the total and absolute generalisation...well, almost."
Back in Cambridge, explanations are up to their usual standards...
"Perhaps it would be best if this argument remained a deep mystery
to you."
"One property which we know very well happens; a+b=b+c."
"I shall explain this by waving my hands about in an appropriate
manner."
"What I've talked about today seems to be uniquely incoherent ... I
never know if you're as baffled as me, or if you're getting along fine."
And our first candidate for the Sybil Fawlty prize for "Stating the
Bleeding Obvious":
"g inverse is called an inverse to g."
"This is not really a convention, it's just the normal way of doing
things."
The things Cambridge does to a lecturer...
"Dr. X hasn't lectured a Cambridge group before, so he might be
quite interesting."
"Some students may feel that the contents of Question 33 are both
dull and useless. I must confess that my first impulse is to reply that it
serves them right for doing the fast
course."
>From the wonderful world of IA Natsci:
"Whenever the maths turns out to be impossible, you have to invent
new physics."
"I've never tried dividing both sides by infinity before, so here
goes."
"It's OK to divide by zero, provided you don't cancel it."
"It's a _real_ integer, not just any old integer."
For once a quote _meant_ to be humourous:
"To a mathematician, PI is 1 and PI^2 is 10. 2*PI we're not quite
sure about."
Descriptions of assorted mathematicians:
"He's not just an experimentalist. He's an antitheorist!"
"He gets lost on random walks."
"Some inspired joker - probably Maxwell."
"This is the simple form. [pause] Well, it's simple in the sense
that it leaves out all the really important bits."
"...as Poincare' proved at the beginning of this talk..."
"This is obvious. But don't look at it too carefully, or it becomes
unobvious, until you look at it for a long time when it becomes obvious
again."
"I need two hands to wave, not just one."
"FORTRAN... Then, as now, the language used by scientists with real
problems."
"Suitably interpreted, this is an exact value."
And from the depths of historical apocrypha...
Supervisor (drawing a graph):
"This function has no nodes."
(Pause)
"How does it smell?"
A good enough philosophy of life:
"Theoretical physicists tend to assume that nature isn't as
malevolent as our pure mathematical examiners."
"Bear with me until my starting transient has settled down into
doing things properly from the notes."
"And now, a few examples of fatigue from [my] vast experience."
Do we have a Dr. Hobson in the faculty?
"If there is a choice, you've got to do it."
"Different may mean the same."
Picture this...
"A sphere isn't that simple when you get into higher dimensions -
it's a bit non-flat."
And those fascinating results come thick and fast in this course:
"There are 9 results in there - it looks like it's going to be
tedious, and indeed it is."
Sometimes I think they make Quantum Mechanics deliberately obscure...
"There's a number down here which, for the sake of argument, we can
call 1."
Precision? What precision?
"We have a correspondence that's nearly one-to-one."
And a couple of remarks from the students...
"Mathmos think of engineers a bit like lemmings... they're both
wooly and jump to the wrong conclusions."
"I don't see the point of lecturers talking, except to resolve some
of the ambiguities in their handwriting."
"Various people with suicidal tendencies can even integrate elliptic
functions"
Said of Algebra III:
"This course could be viewed as 1001 things to do with your
favourite matrix"
The problems that the maths societies have to overcome to get their
audience!
"Why weren't you at the meeting?"
"Because it was boring."
"No it wasn't."
"Well, it _should_ have been!"
Oh, the joys of dual lecturing!
"I was going to say 'the cream of the nation's youth', but they're
probably at the other lecturer."
The secret of Pure Mathematics:
"...interpreting out of all recognition..."
The black art of applied mathematics...
"It is traditional to leave the notation ambiguous."
...and talking about the black arts...
"For non-deterministic read 'Inhabited by pixies'."
And if that wasn't confusing enough...
"I thought I understood Newton's Third Law before that lecture."
"This is equation 2, which implies that equation 3 comes someplace
earlier."
"Unless x is a banana or some other such object that commutes with
A."
And this year's honesty award must surely go for the following two gems
from the same lecturer...
"I'm going to make a small point in the corner of the board [does
so], and come back to it later!"
And later...
"The thing which caused me to write 'lies' in extremely small
letters in the corner of the board was..."
And later still...
"When you see this, you are entitled to go ` Y'what?! '."
A possible candidate for the Tautology Award?
"If we want to take the westerly winds into account, we could also
do that using this method, but then we'd have to take the westerly winds
into account."
"This type of rotor is known as a squirrel-cage rotor because the
way it's wound looks like a bird cage."
CompSci meets Zoology?
"What we're trying to do is work things out about elephants."
1990
A nomination for the Sybil Fawlty "Stating the Bleedin' Obvious" Prize:
"A polynomial f is said to have degree m, written deg f equals m, if
it does have degree m."
Now it is fairly well known that lectures are not supposed to be copied
down mindlessly. But...
"Recall word 2 of defn 2.1"
But then again...
"I know you all have very innocent minds, but occasionally a word
should be allowed to wander through before reaching the paper."
And on the subject of teaching styles:
"Proof left as an exercise for your supervisor."
And this year's first contenders for the Tautology award:
"It's obvious that what I've just written down is obvious."
"The fixed element can be said to be exactly what it is."
Mathematical notation is a minefield of obscure symbols ranging over most
alphabets and scriptstyles. Any guesses for which character was described
by an undergraduate as:
"It's a script spider?"
And with the reading problems come the corresponding writing ones suffered
by these lecturers:
"My script 'y's always end up looking like rabbits."
"Little mouse tensored with piece of cheese."
However, good notation has its rewards as described by this lecturer:
"The prime leaps on to the other factor in a most convenient
fashion."
And now, back to the content of the lecture courses:
"You can hardly underestimate the importance of this."
"I've got a lot to say about this theorem, so don't stop me if I go
too fast."
"Sometimes it's useful to know how large your zero is"
Three from the same lecturer who is clearly having real problems...
"What am I doing? I haven't written any damn thing yet - I've just
written total rubbish."
"What am I talking about? Does anyone know what I'm talking about?
This is rubbish."
"Every time I go to the board with these notes I write down
something completely different."
Hmmm... do I detect someone almost as cynical as myself?
"Theoretical physicist - a physicist whose existence is postulated,
to make the numbers balance, but who is never actually observed in the
laboratory."
A IB Chemistry lecturer, refering to a previously derived equation.
"This is rigorous. Well, it's rigorous in the sense that ... All
right, it's not rigorous."
--
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