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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

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In conversation with Jonathan Farley

Jonathan Farley is a mathematician from New York who completed his bachelor’s degree at Harvard and graduated with a DPhil from Oxford in 1995, after winning Oxford University’s highest awards for mathematics graduate students, the senior mathematical prize and Johnson university prize. His research interests include lattice theory, the theory of ordered sets and discrete mathematics. Whilst this may sound quite pure, there have also been some interesting applications. For example, Jonathan published a paper in 2003 called ‘Breaking Al Qaeda Cells: A Mathematical Analysis of Counterterrorism Operations’ analysing when a terrorist network becomes disrupted and dysfunctional using order theory. This attracted some media and military attention, including the Ministry of National Security in Jamaica implementing some of Jonathan’s ideas in smuggling networks.

Lattice theory

When Jonathan was in high school, his class completed a questionnaire which would tell them their ideal vocation and his result was a mathematician/statistician. “That was the first time I really thought of becoming a mathematician, and since my parents are both professors, I only ever thought of becoming a mathematics professor”. Jonathan’s mother is Jamaican and has a PhD in American history, his father is from Guyana and has a PhD in economics which he completed at the LSE. Continue reading

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In conversation with Tanniemola Liverpool

Tanniemola Liverpool is a professor of theoretical physics in the School of Mathematics at the University of Bristol. As one of the few black mathematics professors in the UK, and as somebody who helped set up the first access scheme to focus specifically on ethnic minorities, his is an authoritative voice on diversity in academia. We spoke with him in September about his experiences, both as a student and as a professor, and about what he thinks are the most important factors in creating a more representative mathematical community.

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The kind of problems black mathematicians wish didn’t need solving

John Derbyshire, columnist for the National Review, wrote an essay implying that blacks are intellectually inferior to whites: only one out of six blacks is smarter than the average white. Derbyshire pulled these figures from a region near his large intestine.

One of Derbyshire’s claims, however, is true: there are no black winners of the Fields medal, the ‘Nobel prize of mathematics’. According to Derbyshire, this is “civilisationally consequential”.

Derbyshire implies that the absence of a black winner means that blacks are incapable of genius. His ilk are only able to sustain such lies because 150 years of racial terrorism have ensured that few dare to challenge them, and, when we do, the consequences are dire. His ilk can get away with thinking that Euclid and Eratosthenes were not Africans working in Africa (even “sub-Saharan Africa”, if they want to make that idiotic distinction), but Greeks with blond hair and alabaster complexion (much like Jesus).

In reality, black mathematicians face career-retarding racism which white Fields medallists never encounter. It’s hard to focus on abstract algebra after Belgian King Leopold has hacked off your hands. Three stories will suffice to make this point. Continue reading

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Why do Afro-Caribbean pupils underachieve in education?

If you compare my achievements to those of other men of Afro-Caribbean descent, you’ll find that I buck the trend. I have two degrees, a masters degree in mathematics and a DPhil in Systems Biology (it’s essentially what they call a PhD at the University of Oxford). I’m also now a data scientist, so my day job involves writing artificial intelligence algorithms to solve business problems. In the eyes of many they would say that this constitutes success. I’m told that I’m also a role model and that many people would love to be in my position. So I guess that means that I am successful and, regardless of how I feel, it also makes me a role model too. However, this is all the more significant not only because of my academic achievements, and not only because I have the “sexiest job of the 21st century“, but simply because I’m of Afro-Caribbean descent.

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In conversation with Olubunmi Abidemi Fadipe-Joseph

Olubunmi is a Nigerian mathematician who gained her BSc Mathematics (first class honours) in 1995 and MSc in mathematics in 1999 from the University of Ibadan (the first university in Nigeria). She gained her PhD from the University of Ilorin, Nigeria in 2005, where she is currently a lecturer in the Department of Mathematics. She decided to study maths because “I loved doing calculations and everything related to mathematics right from my primary school. I always wanted to be a teacher, but then I discovered that as a lecturer I could do some research and so I carried on with my academic career. My father, a teacher, was my role model”. Continue reading

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You don’t need permission to be a great mathematician!

According to Dr Erica Walker’s book Beyond Banneker: Black Mathematicians and the Pursuit of Excellence it is estimated that there are approximately 300 living African-Americans who have a PhD in mathematics. An American columnist once implied that black people are incapable of genius because there has never been a black mathematician who has won the Fields Medal. This is an example of a racial stereotype of all black people, that they can’t excel in mathematics due to their intellectual inferiority.

My name is Nira Chamberlain, I am British born of Jamaican parentage and this is my mathematics story.
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Star polynomials

Edward J Farrell is a celebrated mathematician of the African Diaspora. In 1978, he introduced a general class of graph polynomials, called Farrell-polynomials. Let $F$ be a family of connected graphs (meaning there exists a path between each pair of nodes – a path can be made up of edges and other nodes). With each element $\alpha$ belonging to $F$, we can associate an indeterminate or weight $w_{\alpha}$. An $F$-cover of a graph $G$ is a spanning subgraph, all of whose components belong to $F$. A spanning subgraph is a subgraph which contains all nodes of the original graph. With each $F$-cover $C$ of $G$, we associate the weight $w(C)=\prod w_{\alpha}$, where the product is taken over all the components $\alpha$ in $C$. The $F$-polynomial of $G$ is $F(G;\underline{w})=\sum w(C)$, where $\underline{w}$ is a vector of indeterminates defined by $w_{\alpha}$ and the summation is taken over all the $F$-covers in $G$.

A tree is a graph in which any pair of nodes is connected by exactly one path. An $m$-star $S_m$ is a tree with $m+1$ nodes, containing a node of valency (degree) $m$ called the centre of the star, meaning it is joined to $m$ other nodes. These $m$ nodes of valency 1 are called tips. A proper star is a star that contains at least one edge. A 0-star is a component node and a 1-star is a component edge as shown below.  Continue reading

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In conversation with Nazar Miheisi

Dr Nazar Miheisi is a teaching fellow at King’s College in the Mathematics Department, currently doing research in the field of Analysis (specifically, Operator theory and Complex function theory). Naz, as he likes to be called, is a black researcher in an environment where most of his colleagues and peers are rarely from any ethnic minorities. Naz, who has several academic publications and completed his PhD thesis on convolution operators and function algebras, shared his experiences with us;  from the time he was just a kid in a state school in Wembley, to his Engineering degree at King’s College and his academic career. Continue reading

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October is Black Mathematician Month

This October marks the 30th instance of Black History Month in the UK. The annual event, which was first celebrated in the USA in 1976, aims to highlight the ongoing struggle for equality and to educate people on the achievements of members of the African diaspora. Of course there is plenty to celebrate, from both a historical perspective and in modern society. It is easy to reel off a list of black stars from football, athletics, basketball or cricket. The evolution of popular music has been driven by black artists, from Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin, to Kanye West and Beyoncé. The success of Lena Waithe at the Emmys and Moonlight at the Oscars shows the abundance of black excellence on screen, and the beginnings of recognition at the most prestigious award ceremonies. There are also increasing examples of mainstream success in areas such as literature and politics where, with a record number of black and minority ethnic MPs elected in the 2017 General Election, the UK parliament is now more diverse than ever—although there is still a long way to go. Continue reading