We had a special session on applied category theory here at UCR:

• Applied category theory, Fall Western Sectional Meeting of the AMS, 9–10 November 2019, U.C. Riverside.

I was bowled over by the large number of cool ideas. I’ll have to blog about some of them. A bunch of people stayed for a few days afterwards, and we had lots of great conversations.

The biggest news was that Brendan Fong and David Spivak definitely want to set up an applied category theory in the San Francisco Bay Area, which they’re calling the **Topos Institute**. They are now in the process of raising funds for this institute! I plan to be involved, so I’ll be saying more about this later.

But back to the talks. We didn’t make videos, but here are the slides. Click on talk titles to see abstracts of the talks. For a multi-author talk, the person whose name is in boldface is the one who gave the talk. You also might enjoy comparing the 2017 talks.

• 8:00 a.m.

Fibrations as generalized lens categories — talk slides.

**David I. Spivak**, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

• 9:00 a.m.

Supplying bells and whistles in symmetric monoidal categories — talk slides.

**Brendan Fong**, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

David I. Spivak, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

• 9:30 a.m.

Right adjoints to operadic restriction functors — talk slides.

**Philip Hackney**, University of Louisiana at Lafayette

Gabriel C. Drummond-Cole, IBS Center for Geometry and Physics

• 10:00 a.m.

Duality of relations — talk slides.

**Alexander Kurz**, Chapman University

• 10:30 a.m.

A synthetic approach to stochastic maps, conditional independence, and theorems on sufficient statistics — talk slides.

**Tobias Fritz**, Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics

• 3:00 p.m.

Constructing symmetric monoidal bicategories functorially — talk slides.

**Michael Shulman**, University of San Diego

Linde Wester Hansen, University of Oxford

• 3:30 p.m.

Structured cospans — talk slides.

**Kenny Courser**, University of California, Riverside

John C. Baez, University of California, Riverside

• 4:00 p.m.

Generalized Petri nets — talk slides.

**Jade Master**, University of California, Riverside

• 4:30 p.m.

Formal composition of hybrid systems — talk slides and website.

**Paul Gustafson**, Wright State University

Jared Culbertson, Air Force Research Laboratory

Dan Koditschek, University of Pennsylvania

Peter Stiller, Texas A&M University

• 5:00 p.m.

Strings for cartesian bicategories — talk slides.

**M. Andrew Moshier**, Chapman University

• 5:30 p.m.

Defining and programming generic compositions in symmetric monoidal categories — talk slides.

**Dmitry Vagner**, Los Angeles, CA

• 8:00 a.m.

Mathematics for second quantum revolution — talk slides.

**Zhenghan Wang**, UCSB and Microsoft Station Q

• 9:00 a.m.

A compositional and statistical approach to natural language — talk slides.

**Tai-Danae Bradley**, CUNY Graduate Center

• 9:30 a.m.

Exploring invariant structure in neural activity with applied topology and category theory — talk slides.

**Brad Theilman**, UC San Diego

Krista Perks, UC San Diego

Timothy Q Gentner, UC San Diego

• 10:00 a.m.

Of monks, lawyers and villages: new insights in social network science — talk cancelled due to illness.

**Nina Otter**, Mathematics Department, UCLA

Mason A. Porter, Mathematics Department, UCLA

• 10:30 a.m.

Functorial cluster embedding — talk slides.

**Steve Huntsman**, BAE Systems FAST Labs

• 2:00 p.m.

Quantitative equational logic — talk slides.

**Prakash Panangaden**, School of Computer Science, McGill University

Radu Mardare, Strathclyde University

Gordon D. Plotkin, University of Edinburgh

• 3:00 p.m.

Brakes: an example of applied category theory — talk slides in PDF and Powerpoint.

**Eswaran Subrahmanian**, Carnegie Mellon University / National Institute of Standards and Technology

• 3:30 p.m.

Intuitive robotic programming using string diagrams — talk slides.

**Blake S. Pollard**, National Institute of Standards and Technology

• 4:00 p.m.

Metrics on functor categories — talk slides.

**Vin de Silva**, Department of Mathematics, Pomona College

• 4:30 p.m.

Hausdorff and Wasserstein metrics on graphs and other structured data — talk slides.

**Evan Patterson**, Stanford University

• John Baez, Qué es la teoría de categorías y cómo se ha convertido en tendencia, *El País*, 8 November 2019.

Here’s the English-language version I wrote. It’s for a general audience so don’t expect hard-core math!

Recently, various scientific media have been paying attention to a branch of mathematics called “category theory” that has become pretty popular inside the mathematical community in recent years. Some mathematicians are even starting to complain on Twitter that more people are tweeting about category theory than their own specialties. But what is this branch of mathematics, and why is it becoming so fashionable?

Category theory was invented in 1945 as a general technique to transform problems in one field of pure mathematics into problems in another field, where they could be solved. For example, we know that at any moment there must be a location on the surface of the Earth there where the wind velocity is zero. This is a marvelous result—but to prove this result, we must translate it into a fact about algebra, and a bit of category theory is very helpful here. More difficult results often require more category theory. The proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, for example, builds on a vast amount of 20th-century mathematics, in which category theory plays a crucial role.

Category theory is sometimes called “the mathematics of mathematics”, since it stands above many other fields of mathematics, connecting and uniting them. Unfortunately even mathematicians have a limited tolerance for this high level of abstraction. So, for a long time many mathematicians called category theory “abstract nonsense”—using it reluctantly when it was necessary for their work, but not really loving it.

On the other hand, other mathematicians embraced the beauty and power of category theory. Thus, its influence has gradually been spreading. Since the 1990s, it has been infiltrating computer science: for example, new programming languages like Haskell and Scala use ideas from this subject. But now we are starting to see people apply category theory to chemistry, electrical engineering, and even the design of brakes in cars! “Applied category theory”, once an oxymoron, is becoming a real subject.

To understand this we need a little taste of the ideas. A category consists of a set of “objects” together with “morphisms”—some kind of processes, or paths—going between these objects. For example, we could take the objects to be cities, and the morphisms to be routes from one city to another. The key requirement is that if we have a morphism from an object *x* to an object *y* and a morphism from *y* to an object *z*, we can “compose” them and get a morphism from *x* to *z*. For example, if you have a way to drive from Madrid to Seville and a way to drive from Seville to Faro, that gives a way to drive from Madrid to Faro. Thus there is a category of cities and routes between them.

In mathematics, this focus on morphisms represented a radical shift of viewpoint. Starting around 1900, logicians tried to build the whole of mathematics on solid foundations. This turned out to be a difficult and elusive task, but their best attempt at the time involved “set theory”. A set is simply a collection of elements. In set theory as commonly practiced by mathematicians, these elements are also just sets. In this worldview, everything is just a set. It is a static worldview, as if we had objects but no morphisms. On the other hand, category theory builds on set theory by emphasizing morphisms—ways of transforming things—as equal partners to things themselves. It is not incompatible with set theory, but it offers new ways of thinking.

The idea of a category is simple. Exploiting it is harder. A loose group of researchers are starting to apply category theory to subjects beyond pure mathematics. The key step is to focus a bit less on things and a bit more on morphisms, which are ways to go between things, or ways to transform one thing into another. This is attitude is well suited to computer programming: a program is a way to transform input data into output data, and composing programs is the easiest way to build complicated programs from simpler ones. But personally, I am most excited by applications to engineering and the natural sciences, because these are newer and more surprising.

I was very pleased when two of my students got internships at the engineering firm Siemens, applying category theory to industrial processes. The first, Blake Pollard, now has a postdoctoral position at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the USA. Among other things, he has used a programming method based on category theory to help design a “smart grid”—an electrical power network that is flexible enough to handle the ever-changing power generated by thousands of homes equipped with solar panels.

Rumors say that soon there may even be an institute of applied category theory, connecting mathematicians to programmers and businesses who need this way of thinking. It is too early to tell if this is the beginning of a trend, but my friends and colleagues on Twitter are very excited.

]]>We’re having a workshop to promote diversity in math here at UCR:

• Riverside Mathematics Workshop for Excellence and Diversity, Friday 8 November 2019, U. C. Riverside. Organized by John Baez, Weitao Chen, Edray Goins, Ami Radunskaya, and Fred Wilhelm.

If you want to come, please register here.

It’s happening right before the applied category theory meeting, so I hope some of you can make both… especially since the category theorist Eugenia Cheng will be giving a talk!

Three talks will take place in Skye Hall—home of the math department—starting at 1 pm. After this we’ll have refreshments and an hour for students to talk to the speakers. Starting at 6 pm there will be a reception across the road at the UCR Alumni Center, with food and a panel discussion on the challenges we face in promoting diversity at U.C. Riverside.

All the talks will be in Skye 284:

• 1:00–1:50 p.m. **Abba Gumel, Arizona State University.**

**Some models for enhancing diversity and capacity-building in STEM education in under-represented minority communities.**

STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education is undoubtedly the necessary bedrock for the development and sustenance of the vitally-needed knowledge-based economy that fuels and sustains the development of modern nations. Central to STEM education are, of course, the mathematical science … which are the rock-solid foundation of all the natural and engineering sciences. Hence, it is vital that all diverse populations are not left behind in the quest to build and sustain capacity in the mathematical sciences. This talk focuses on discussion around a number of pedagogic and mentorship models that have been (and are being) used to help increase diversity and capacity-building in STEM education in general, and in the mathematical sciences in particular, in under-represented minority populations. Some examples from Africa, Canada and the U.S. will be presented.

• 2:00–2:50. **Marissa Loving, Georgia Tech.**

**Where do I belong? Creating space in the math community.**

I will tell the story of my mathematical journey with a focus on my time in grad school. I will be blunt about the ups and downs I have experienced and touch on some of the barriers (both structural and internalized) I have encountered. I will also discuss some of the programs and spaces I have helped create in my quest to make the mathematics community into a place where folks from historically under-represented groups (particularly women of color) can feel safe, seen, and free to devote their energy to their work. If you have ever felt like you don’t belong or worried that you have made others feel that way, this talk is for you.

• 3:00–3:50 p.m. **Eugenia Cheng, School of the Art Institute of Chicago.**

**Inclusion–exclusion in mathematics and beyond: who stays in, who falls out, why it happens, and what we could do about it.**

The question of why women and minorities are under-represented in mathematics is complex and there are no simple answers, only many contributing factors. I will focus on character traits, and argue that if we focus on this rather than gender we can have a more productive and less divisive conversation. To try and focus on characters rather than genders I will introduce gender-neutral character adjectives “ingressive” and “congressive” as a new dimension to shift our focus away from masculine and feminine. I will share my experience of teaching congressive abstract mathematics to art students, in a congressive way, and the possible effects this could have for everyone in mathematics, not just women. Moreover I will show that abstract mathematics is applicable to working towards a more inclusive, congressive society in this politically divisive era. This goes against the assumption that abstract math can only be taught to high level undergraduates and graduate students, and the accusation that it is removed from real life.

• 4:00–4:30 p.m. **Refreshments in Skye 284.**

• 4:30–5:30 p.m. **Conversations Between Speakers & Students, Not Faculty, in Skye 284.**

• 6:00–6:45 p.m. **Reception with Food at the Alumni Center.**

• 6:45 – 7:45 p.m. **Panel Discussion at Alumni Center with Alissa Crans, Jose Gonzalez and Paige Helms, moderated by Edray Goins.**

• Adam Marblestone, Climate technology primer (2/3): CO_{2} removal.

The first covered the basics of climate science as related to global warming. This one moves on to consider technologies for removing carbon dioxide from the air.

I hope you keep the following warning in mind as you read on:

I’m focused here on trying to understand the narrowly technical aspects, not on the political aspects, despite those being crucial. This is meant to be a review of the technical literature, not a political statement. I worried that writing a blog purely on the topic of technological intervention in the climate, without attempting or claiming to do justice to the social issues raised, would implicitly suggest that I advocate a narrowly technocratic or unilateral approach, which is not my intention. By focusing on technology, I don’t mean to detract from the importance of the social and policy aspects.

The technological issues are worth studying on their own, since they constrain what’s possible. For example: to draw down as much CO_{2} as human civilization is emitting now, with trees their peak growth phase and their carbon stored permanently, could be done by covering the whole USA with such trees.

• John Baez, review of *Foundations of Mathematics and Physics One Century After Hilbert: New Perspectives*, edited by Joseph Kouneiher, *Notices of the American Mathematical Society* **66** no. 11 (November 2019), 1690–1692.

It gave me a chance to say a bit—just a tiny bit—about the current state of fundamental physics and the foundations of mathematics.

]]>• Uffe Engberg and Glynn Winskel, Petri nets as models of linear logic, in *Colloquium on Trees in Algebra and Programming*, Springer, Berlin, 1990, pp. 147–161.

It contains a nice observation: we can get a commutative quantale from any Petri net.

I’ll explain how in a minute. But first, what does have to do with linear logic?

In linear logic, propositions form a category where the morphisms are proofs and we have two kinds of ‘and’: , which is a cartesian product on this category, and , which is a symmetric monoidal structure. There’s much more to linear logic than this (since there are other connectives), and maybe also less (since we may want our category to be a mere poset), but never mind. I want to focus on the weird business of having two kinds of ‘and’.

Since is cartesian we have as usual in logic.

But since is not cartesian we usually *don’t* have This other kind of ‘and’ is about resources: from one copy of a thing you can’t get two copies.

Here’s one way to think about it: if is “I have a sandwich”, is like “I have a sandwich and I have a sandwich”, while is like “I have two sandwiches”.

A commutative quantale captures these two forms of ‘and’, and more. A commutative quantale is a commutative monoid object in the category of cocomplete posets: that is, posets where every subset has a least upper bound. But it’s a fact that any cocomplete poset is also complete: every subset has a greatest lower bound!

If we think of the elements of our commutative quantale as propositions, we interpret as “ implies ”. The least upper bound of any subset of proposition is their ‘or’. Their greatest lower bound is their ‘and’. But we also have the commutative monoid operation, which we call This operation distributes over least upper bounds.

So, a commutative quantale has both the logical (not just for pairs of propositions, but arbitrary sets of them) and the operation that describes combining resources.

To get from a Petri net to a commutative quantale, we can compose three functors.

First, any Petri net gives a commutative monoidal category—that is, a commutative monoid object in . Indeed, my student Jade has analyzed this in detail and shown the resulting functor from the category of Petri nets to the category of commutative monoidal categories is a left adjoint:

• Jade Master, Generalized Petri nets, Section 4.

Second, any category gives a poset where we say if there is a morphism from to Moreover, the resulting functor preserves products. As a result, every commutative monoidal category gives a commutative monoidal poset: that is, a commutative monoid object in the category of Posets.

Composing these two functors, every Petri net gives a commutative monoidal poset. Elements are of this poset are markings of the Petri net, the partial order is “reachability”, and the commutative monoid structure is addition markings.

Third, any poset gives another poset whose elements are **downsets** of : that is, subsets such that

The partial order on downsets is inclusion. This new poset is ‘better’ than because it’s cocomplete. That is, any union of downsets is again a downset. Moreover, contains as a sub-poset. The reason is that each gives a downset

and clearly

Composing this third functor with the previous two, every Petri net gives a commutative monoid object in the category of cocomplete posets. But this is just a commutative quantale!

What is this commutative quantale like? Its elements are downsets of markings of our Petri net: sets of markings such that if is in the set and is reachable from then is also in the set.

It’s good to contemplate this a bit more. A marking can be seen as a ‘resource’. For example, if our Petri net has a place in it called `sandwich`

there is a marking 2`sandwich`

, which means you have two sandwiches. Downsets of markings are sets of markings such that if is in the set and is reachable from then is also in the set! An example of a downset would be “a sandwich, or anything that can give you a sandwich”. Another is “two sandwiches, or anything that can give you two sandwiches”.

The tensor product comes from addition of markings, extended in the obvious way to downsets of markings. For example, “a sandwich, or anything that can give you a sandwich” tensored with “a sandwich, or anything that can give you a sandwich” equals “two sandwiches, or anything that can give you two sandwiches”.

On the other hand, the cartesian product is the logical ‘and’:

if you have “a sandwich, or anything that can give you a sandwich” and you have “a sandwich, or anything that can give you a sandwich”, then you just have “a sandwich, or anything that can give you a sandwich”.

So that’s the basic idea.

]]>• Adam Marblestone, Climate technology primer (1/3): basics.

Adam Marblestone is a research scientist at Google DeepMind studying connections between neuroscience and artificial intelligence. Previously, he was Chief Strategy Officer of the brain-computer interface company Kernel, and a research scientist in Ed Boyden’s Synthetic Neurobiology Group at MIT working to develop new technologies for brain circuit mapping. He also helped to start companies like BioBright, and advised foundations such as the Open Philanthropy Project.

Now, like many of us, he’s thinking about climate change, and what to do about it. He writes:

In this first of three posts, I attempt an outsider’s summary of the basic physics/chemistry/biology of the climate system, focused on

back of the envelope calculationswhere possible. At the end, I comment a bit about technological approaches for emissions reductions. Future posts will include a review of the science behind negative emissions technologies, as well as the science (with plenty of caveats, don’t worry) behind more controversial potential solar radiation management approaches. This first post should be very basic for anyone “in the know” about energy, but I wanted to cover the basics before jumping into carbon sequestration technologies.

Check it out! I like the focus on “back of the envelope” calculations because they serve as useful sanity checks for more complicated models… and also provide a useful vaccination against the common denialist argument “all the predictions rely on complicated computer models that could be completely wrong, so why should I believe them?” It’s a sad fact that *one* of the things we need to do is make sure most technically literate people have a basic understanding of climate science, to help provide ‘herd immunity’ to everyone else.

The ultimate goal here, though, is to think about “what can technology do about climate change?”

]]>Joe Moeller and I have finalized the schedule of our meeting on applied category theory:

• Applied Category Theory, special session of the Fall Western Sectional Meeting of the AMS, U. C. Riverside, Riverside, California, 9–10 November 2019.

It’s going to be really cool, with talks on everything from brakes to bicategories, from quantum physics to social networks, and more—with the power of category theory as the unifying theme!

You can get information on registration, hotels and such here. If you’re coming, you might also want to attend Eugenia Cheng‘s talk on the afternoon of Friday November 8th. I’ll announce the precise title and time of her talk, and also the *location *of all the following talks, as soon as I know!

In what follows, the person actually giving the talk has an asterisk by their name. You can click on talk titles to see abstracts of the talks.

**Saturday November 9, 2019, 8:00 a.m.-10:50 a.m.**

- 8:00 a.m.
*Fibrations as generalized lens categories.***David I. Spivak***, Massachusetts Institute of Technology - 9:00 a.m.
*Supplying bells and whistles in symmetric monoidal categories.***Brendan Fong***, Massachusetts Institute of Technology**David I. Spivak**, Massachusetts Institute of Technology - 9:30 a.m.
*Right adjoints to operadic restriction functors.***Gabriel C. Drummond-Cole**, IBS Center for Geometry and Physics**Philip Hackney***, Department of Mathematics, University of Louisiana at Lafayette - 10:00 a.m.
*Duality of relations.***Alexander Kurz***, Chapman University - 10:30 a.m.
*A synthetic approach to stochastic maps, conditional independence, and theorems on sufficient statistics.***Tobias Fritz***, Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics

**Saturday November 9, 2019, 3:00 p.m.-5:50 p.m.**

- 3:00 p.m.
*Constructing symmetric monoidal bicategories functorially.***Michael Shulman***, University of San Diego**Linde Wester Hansen**, University of Oxford - 3:30 p.m.
*Structured cospans.***Kenny Courser***, University of California, Riverside**John C. Baez**, University of California, Riverside and Centre for Quantum Technologies, National University of Singapore - 4:00 p.m.
*Generalized Petri nets.***Jade Master***, University of California Riverside - 4:30 p.m.
*Formal composition of hybrid systems.***Jared Culbertson**, Air Force Research Laboratory**Paul Gustafson***, Wright State University**Dan Koditschek**, University of Pennsylvania**Peter Stiller**, Texas A&M University - 5:00 p.m.
*Strings for Cartesian bicategories.***M. Andrew Moshier***, Chapman University - 5:30 p.m.
*Defining and programming generic compositions in symmetric monoidal categories.***Dmitry Vagner***, Los Angeles, CA

**Sunday November 10, 2019, 8:00 a.m.-10:50 a.m.**

- 8:00 a.m.
*Mathematics for second quantum revolution.***Zhenghan Wang***, UCSB and Microsoft Station Q - 9:00 a.m.
*A compositional and statistical approach to natural language.***Tai-Danae Bradley***, CUNY Graduate Center - 9:30 a.m.
*Exploring invariant structure in neural activity with applied topology and category theory.***Brad Theilman***, UC San Diego**Krista Perks**, UC San Diego**Timothy Q Gentner**, UC San Diego - 10:00 a.m.
*Of monks, lawyers and villages: new insights in social network science.***Nina Otter***, Mathematics Department, UCLA**Mason A Porter**, Mathematics Department, UCLA - 10:30 a.m.
*Functorial cluster embedding.***Steve Huntsman***, BAE Systems FAST Labs

**Sunday November 10, 2019, 2:00 p.m.-4:50 p.m.**

- 2:00 p.m.
*Quantitative equational logic.***Prakash Panangaden***, School of Computer Science, McGill University**Radu Mardare**, Strathclyde University**Gordon D. Plotkin**, University of Edinburgh - 3:00 p.m.
*Brakes: an example of applied category theory.***Eswaran Subrahmanian***, Carnegie Mellon University/NIST - 3:30 p.m.
*Intuitive robotic programming using string diagrams.***Blake S Pollard***, National Institute of Standards and Technology - 4:00 p.m.
*Metrics on functor categories.***Vin de Silva***, Department of Mathematics, Pomona College - 4:30 p.m.
*Hausdorff and Wasserstein metrics on graphs and other structured data.***Evan Patterson***, Stanford University

Here is an L-chondrite:

A chondrite is a stony, non-metallic meteorite that was formed form small grains of dust present in the early Solar System. They are the most common kind of meteorite—and the three most common kinds, each with its own somewhat different chemical composition, seem to come from different asteroids.

L chondrites are named that because they are low in iron. Compared to other chondrites, a lot of L chondrites have been heavily shocked—evidence that their parent body was catastrophically disrupted by a large impact.

It seems that roughly 500,000 years after this event, lots of meteorites started hitting Earth: this is called the Ordovician meteor event. Big craters from that event still dot the Earth! Here are some in North America:

Number 3 is the Rock Elm Disturbance, created when a rock roughly 170 meters in diameter slammed into what’s now Wisconsin:

It doesn’t look like much now, but imagine what it must have been like! The crater is about 6 kilometers across. It features intensely fractured quartz grain and a faulted rim.

It seems these big L-chondrite meteors hit the Earth roughly in a line:

Of course the continents didn’t look like this when the meteor hit, about 467.5 million years ago.

One big question is: was the Ordovician meteor event somehow connected to the giant increase in biodiversity during the Ordovician? Here’s a graph of biodiversity over time:

The Cambrian explosion gets all the press, but in terms of the sheer number of new families the so-called Ordovician radiation was bigger. Most animal life was undersea at the time. This is when coral reefs and other complex ocean ecosystems came into being!

There are lots of theories that try to explain the Ordovician radiation. For example, the oxygen concentration in the atmosphere and ocean soared right before the start of the Ordovician period. More than one of these theories could be right. But it’s interesting to think about the possible influence of the Ordovician meteor event.

There were a lot of meteor impacts, but the *dust* may have been more important. Right now, extraterrestrial dust counts for just 1% of all dust in the Earth’s atmosphere. In the Ordovician, the amount of extraterrestial dust was 1,000 – 10,000 times greater, due to the big smash-up in the asteroid belt! This may have caused the global cooling we see in that period. The Ordovician started out hot, but by the end there were glaciers.

How could this increase biodiversity? The “intermediate disturbance hypothesis” says that biodiversity increases under conditions of mild stress. Some argue this explains the Ordovician radiation.

I’d say this is pretty iffy. But it’s sure interesting! Read more here:

• Birger Schmitz *et al.*, An extraterrestrial trigger for the mid-Ordovician ice age: Dust from the breakup of the L-chondrite parent body, *Science Advances*, 18 September 2019.

Another fun question is: where are the remains of the L chondrite parent body? Could they be the asteroids in the Flora family?

]]>• Izabella Łaba, Rethinking universities in an era of climate change.

You should read her slides, but she’s given me permission to quote them extensively here. She starts by saying:

This talk came from my frustration with how universities are

responding to climate emergency.• Corporate-style “sustainability”: VPs, associate deans, senior

administrative positions, fancy webpages, sustainability

rankings.• Money (millions of $): raising money, spending money,

massive construction projects.• Feel-good (cheap) projects: plastic straws, bike to work

competitions, etc.• Climate strike, Sept. 20 and 27. UBC did not cancel classes.

Nor does it plan (as of now) to divest from fossil fuels.

Here is what she wants to argue:

• We need to rethink sustainability, especially at universities.

Maybe we need less activity, not more. Less construction

noise, less fundraising, more room for quiet study and

reflection.• Stop measuring sustainability by the amount of money being

spent on it. That makes no sense.• It’s not enough for us, individually, to try to reduce our own

activities that damage the environment.We have to stop requiring others to engage in such activities. That includes indirect pressure through professional and institutional norms.• Change will be forced on us. We will have to adapt, one way

or another. It’s up to us whether we make the transition humane and how much of human knowledge we manage to preserve.• The more humane and (relatively) more optimistic scenarios require social justice. We need to listen to local activists. We need to listen to those who have experience living with scarcity and uncertainty. We need redistribution, badly. We need more equality, less competition, more cooperation.

I will focus on one part of her argument, one that resonates with me very strongly. Administrators tend to think quite narrowly about the future of academia. They usually want their universities to do more of what they’re already doing—and to accomplish this, they try to get ahold of more money, hire more people, and get everyone to work harder.

Łaba’s talk is much bolder, but also more realistic: she points out the need for universities to do some things *differently*, and also do some things *less*.

She critiques the administrators’ approach, which she aptly calls the “corporate” approach:

• Decisions are often made by people who don’t actually teach or do research. Private consultations with donors, no transparency, faculty and students informed after the fact.

• No regard for actual academic activity. I’ve often felt like construction, landscaping, etc. were treated as top priorities, and my teaching/research were just getting in the way of that.

• Do we still want to have a university? So many sustainability projects involve reducing space and resources available to us on campus. Should we just close campus altogether, except to developers, and have students watch some YouTube videos instead? Would that be “sustainable”?

She points out how the corporate approach puts faculty on a forever speeding treadmill:

Our workloads keep increasing. Faculty often report 50-60 hour work weeks:

• Course loads and/or class sizes.

• Additional administrative duties. (Digitization was supposed

to reduce the bureaucracy. Instead, it has increased it.) Not

only imposed by senior admins. We do it to each other.• New: long lists of things we are expected to do to support student well-being. It’s additional work, but surely we care about our students, don’t we?

• Oh, and also, could we please ride our bikes to work? Because environment.

It does not work that way.

Tired and overworked people do not have the capacity to accept additional challenges. They will drive to work, order takeout food for lunch/dinner even if it comes in Styrofoam containers, forget their reusable bags, throw garbage in compost bins by mistake, generally waste resources that otherwise could be saved.

Employers/cities can’t just tell us to get on our bikes. They need to understand the reasons why we need cars, and then address that.

She calls us to the scary but also inspiring task of radically rethinking universities:

We will have to slow down and think hard about what is important to us. What do we want to create? What do we want to save and preserve for future generations?

We will probably continue to teach and do math research.Both education and creativity are basic human needs. Look to WW2 in Poland: underground classes were held even when penalties included death and concentration camps. Mathematicians did math in horrifying conditions, if only to distract themselves. We won’t give up on it easily.But we do need to think about which parts of our jobs are less

important and could be discarded.• We spend so much time on gatekeeping. Refereeing, proposal evaluations, ranking decisions, writing and reading recommendation letters, deciding whether this paper is just good enough for Journal X but not for Y. What if we didn’t have to do that? We only have limited time available; how much of that time do we want to spend on refereeing?

• Gatekeeping would be less intense if the stakes were not as high. We can’t continue with the Hunger Games model where only a handful of decent jobs are available and everyone else is an adjunct with no job security.

• Hi NSF! Smaller grants distributed to more researchers would

be a great model to adopt.• A Green New Deal in math would have to mean redistribution of work. Lower the workloads by splitting them up between more people. Creates new jobs, not in construction but in education. I’d accept that, even if it meant lower pay for me.

• Allow for specialization and division of work. Tenured faculty

already do their research, supervise grad students, teach large classes, teach small classes, write grant proposals, hustle for funding. Also asked to learn innovative teaching methods, serve as health counsellors/therapists when needed, engage in public outreach, etc. These are all good things to do, but can one person really do it all? In the limited time we have? And still ride a bike to work?• But make that division equitable.

And, she points out the importance of dissemination and preservation of knowledge, not mere “production” of knowledge—especially in a time of crisis:

• Do we still have time to read other people’s papers? 30-40 years ago, people would rediscover previously known results because research dissemination was less effective. (No internet, limited access to professional journals, publishing delays.) Now, this happens because young mathematicians are under so much pressure to produce new results that they have no time left for reading. Also because some papers are very

diffcult to decipher, even for experts.• Knowledge can and does get lost, especially during major upheavals. We need to spend less time “producing” new papers making incremental progress, and pay more attention to consolidation, exposition and preservation of the knowledge we already have.

I’ve quoted so much you may think you’ve read her whole talk here, but you haven’t. Read her slides (she also plans to write a longer version). And if you work at a university, or know people who do, please spread the word.

Some last words:

]]>Universities, as non-profit organizations dedicated to the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge, should be leading the way. We should experiment and model the change for others.

We need more quiet study, reflection and contemplation. We need to learn to make do with less.