Labor pains–Piper Harron’s mathematics thesis
I’ve recommended a lot of books to people over the years for their various merits. I’m recommending that everyone read Piper Harron’s PhD thesis for many of the same reasons. This piece is a primal scream of human struggle and is recognizable to anyone whose ambitions have ever been cut short or delayed by the demands of life.
Harron begins the thesis declaiming the academic environment she studied within and its preference for a narrow type of person and personality. In this, Harron’s thesis is a manifesto. Her lively personality and gift for explaining complex mathematical logic dances off every page as she displays her mastery of her proof with quirky but effective circus metaphors. Harron also sets herself apart from her peers by presenting a thesis loaded with personal expression. This is in stark contrast to the impersonal detachment one expects in a mathematics thesis.
Harron made an effort to make her thesis accessible to lay readers with “laysplanations” at the start of each section. Her language is casual and peppered with social media references, jokes, and slang. In addition to her circus metaphors we are also treated to a higher math explanation in the guise of a preschool circle time game.
I am not going to spoil the ending of her magnum opus. Do yourself a favor. You need to skim and suffer at least a bit through the gnarly mathematics to identify emotionally with Harron and her poignant human conclusion.
Once her personal life calms down a little, I do hope to see her teaching and communicating mathematics with her diverse feminist viewpoint. The world needs her voice. The world needs a Piper Harran TED talk. The world needs Piper Harran popular mathematics books. The world needs Piper Harran’s social commentary.