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The first Black Mathematician Month outreach event

Earlier this year we hosted the second edition of Black Mathematician Month, with articles including a biography of David Blackwell and an explanation of how Black Panther’s suit could be modelled mathematically. But we were also busy organising an exciting event: a full day of workshops, talks and activities targeted specifically at black students. Read on to find out how it went!
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The maths ‘black box’

It’s only at university that I started to consider mathematics as a possible fully-fledged part of my life. During my second year, in December 2013, the most widespread Ebola disease outbreak in history occurred in west Africa, killing thousands of people. As part of our national exam, my friend and I decided to study the virus propagation. For one year, we modelled the disease spread. From this mathematical model, we determined a vaccine campaign strategy to eradicate the epidemic efficiently. Continue reading

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Balancing the equation

Sometimes, as scientists, we can be too focused on the details, and this clouds our vision when discussing broader topics such as diversity. The Royal Institution’s event ‘Balancing the equation‘, held on 8 October this year, avoided this pitfall and kept both eyes firmly on the big picture. The evening explored the far-reaching implications of structural racism on the past, present and future of science, and was hosted by Alex Lathbridge, a comedian, presenter and doctoral researcher in biochemistry.

Alongside Lathbridge were three guests: Lisa Kennedy, assistant curator at the Science Museum; Segun Fatumo, a senior scientist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; and Riham Satti, an entrepreneur who uses artificial intelligence to improve the hiring process. The speakers’ range of backgrounds ensured that the evening was varied, and presented a well-rounded view of the issue. Continue reading

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The mathematics of Black Panther

In 2018, I watched the excellent Marvel film Black Panther, which has taken over a billion dollars at the box office worldwide! The film had a number of themes, including the question ‘what if an African country, named Wakanda, lead the world in technology?’  The film offered a cinematic picture of this, with an important emphasis on STEM subjects.

Now, one of the most interesting characters in the film is Shuri. Wikipedia describes her character like this:

Shuri, the princess of Wakanda, designs new technology for the country. She is ‘an innovative spirit with an innovative mind’ who ‘wants to take Wakanda to a new place’. Shuri is a good role model for young black girls as well as being one of the smartest persons in the world.

An illustration of Shuri, from the cover of a Black Panther comic. Image: Stanley Lau, fair use.

One of the technologies that Shuri designed was Black Panther’s suit. The suit is special because it can distribute the kinetic energy from an impact. The idea is that the kinetic energy will not be focused on one area, but move to another part of the suit where it can be absorbed. Okay, nice Hollywood science fiction stuff… or is it? Watching this scene took me back to my postgraduate days, when I was doing an MSc in Industrial Mathematical Modelling at Loughborough University. Here, I did a dissertation titled ‘Impact on an adhesive joint’. Continue reading

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David Blackwell and me

When I first came across the great Black mathematician and statistician, David Blackwell (1919-2010), circa 1975, I was actually informed that he was white. He was also then Irish. Or, so I was told by a triumphal fellow MSc economics and econometrics student at Southampton University, himself Irish, and now also a professor of economics.

The occasion of this initial meeting with Blackwell was our econometrics class’s introduction to the eponymous Rao-Blackwell theorem—a fundamental result in the theory of optimal statistical estimators. In simple terms, this theorem shows how to improve upon a rudimentary unbiased estimator of a statistical parameter, and indeed, get the best unbiased estimator of that parameter, when certain technical conditions are satisfied. I remember being struck by the beauty of this result. Perhaps it was my excitement about it that led my Irish colleague to try to deflate me by claiming his own racial and national part-ownership for the theorem by telling me that Blackwell was a white Irishman—Rao’s Indian extraction being self-evident. Maybe, more charitably, he was just engaging in supposedly characteristic Irish blarney, without malice. Regardless, I never bothered to check his claim—and, why should I have doubted a fellow student’s word about something as inconsequential as someone’s nationality, as I thought then?

So, for almost a decade afterwards, I happily persisted in the belief that Blackwell was indeed Irish and blithely assured others of this. I must have given much wry amusement to those who knew otherwise. It was not until the academic year 1984-85, which I spent as a joint fellow at CORE (Centre for Operations Research and Econometrics) and IRES (Institut de Recherches Économiques et Sociales) at Université Catholique de Louvain-la-Neuve, that I was finally disabused of my misinformation by another researcher. Continue reading

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Black Mathematician Month 2018

Happy October everyone and welcome to the second instalment of Black Mathematician Month! As you may have noticed, diversity in higher education has been in the news a lot recently and this is not without reason. We strongly believe that mathematics should be open to everyone, regardless of education, age or background. There has been very little progress in improving diversity in our field, and this is why we, as mathematicians and science communicators, think it is important to continue the discussion of the effects, as well as, what needs to be done for things to change. As a result we are working to actively promote the work of black mathematicians throughout the entirety of October alongside Black History Month in what we are calling Black Mathematician Month.
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Closing the first Black Mathematician Month

This October, we have been celebrating  Black Mathematician Month. The objective was, firstly, to promote the work of black mathematicians from around the world, highlighting the crucial role they play and their successful careers. Secondly, we aimed to show how society can let down black mathematicians, often (but not always) without realising it: from the kid at school who is convinced by their teachers not to become a mathematician “because is not for them” to the professional mathematician who assumes that a black person at a conference “is part of the cleaning staff”, to more explicitly racist events. Continue reading

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In conversation with Vernon Morris

Meet Vernon Morris; a chemist, a mathematician and an active contributor to making everyone aware of the race gap in academia and industry.

Becoming an academic

Given the successes of his academic career, it is surprising to hear that Vernon Morris “never planned to go to college. A lot of folks where I was growing up, they didn’t really go to college. They went into the air force or they tried to find a job.” He was good at boxing when he was at high school and thus was given two options: either join the air force (“because they had a good boxing programme”) or become a professional boxer right away.

Vernon working on his project; Image reproduced with his permission

But fate intervened, and Vernon started at college in Atlanta. “I left for college, but I didn’t know what I wanted to major in.” He was on his way to his part-time job when, cutting through the Department of Chemistry, he bumped into a professor who was so intrigued by him that he offered him a scholarship. “But there was a catch. You have to major in chemistry and you have to major in maths, because you can’t do chemistry without maths. I accepted his offer.” This professor was Henry McBay, a man who is responsible for more African-American PhD students (over 50) than any other single person. It doesn’t come as a surprise, then, that Vernon considers him as a role model: “Henry McBay got me on the right path”.
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In conversation with Talitha Washington

Talitha Washington is a professor of mathematics at Howard University who is passionate about improving ethnic minority access to STEM subjects in the USA. Talitha, whose name comes from the Biblical verse “Talitha cumi”, literally meaning “little girl, get up!”, introduces herself as an activist, a mathematician, and a professor.

Talitha, the activist

Talitha Washington’s work on Elbert Frank Cox, the first black person in the world to earn a PhD in mathematics, has been shared on radio and television stations, as well as in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society. They both grew up in Evansville, Indiana and both went on to teach at Howard University. Image reproduced with her permission.

The lack of diversity in sciences and mathematics is a sensitive topic, and how different generations interact with racism has drastically changed over the past few decades. “Typically, older generations, like our parents, used to say you should ‘act like a duck and shake off the water’, meaning if you encounter racially charged situations you just grit your teeth and persevere through it: you try not to let it affect you.” Talitha says that for people of her generation this was also the norm, even though it did not seem fair. However, for the younger generations, the situation is a little different. They have grown up with a black president in the United States and the promise that if you work hard you will be rewarded, independent of the colour of your skin. So if they “encounter racially charged situations they may or may not know what to do, or how to handle it. Instead they will say, ‘this is not for me — I am going somewhere else where I am already accepted, because this is not how it should be’. And we don’t want to lose the younger generations in STEM because of that.”
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My mathematical trajectory

My name is Lassina Dembélé, and I am a mathematician who specialises in number theory. This piece is somewhat related to mathematics. I grew up in the north of Côte d’Ivoire, near the border with Mali. We spoke both Malinke and Senoufo at home, the most common languages in the region. So, for curiosity, if you want to know how Malinke sounds like, I recommend that you rent the movieAmistad by Steven Spielberg. At some point in the movie, Roger Sherman Baldwin, the lawyer played by Matthew McConaughey, can be seen beating the ground up and down while saying the words “keley, filah, sabah, nani”, etc. He is simply counting in Malinke, the language spoken by the Mande people who were on board the hijacked ship.

Several years ago, I came across the story of William Kamkwamba, “The boy who harnessed the wind”. I thought I was reading about a younger self. I was one of the few survivors of a polio epidemic which swept through my village. My twin sister was fortunately spared by the disease. I was left paralysed in both legs as a result of this, which meant that I couldn’t do any of the traditional manual labours. So for a period of time, my parents struggled to decide on my future. A family friend, named Mr Koné, was a teacher in the school of my village and, under his relentless insistence, my family sent me to school. Continue reading