Because the stakes are so small

Excuse me, Professor Tsing? I’m really sorry to bother you, but could I ask you a quick question…”

Feigned politeness. Smug self-importance disguised as intellectual curiosity and deference.

Stylised chalkboard with equations
The material in those notes had, in large part, made his career. Of course, one tiny error wouldn’t change that

“In your proof, it seems like one of the terms just disappears from the calculations…” The student had held up a wire-bound notebook open to a page filled with calculations scrawled in blue ink.

He barely glanced at it. Instead, he focused his attention on preparing his tea. He dunked the bag in the water, added two sweet-n-lows, opened the fridge to retrieve a carton of milk. He added a splash, paused, then added another. He returned the carton. He stirred, the spoon clinking against the sides of his coffee mug. He dropped the spoon into the metal tub sink from a height that would properly convey his annoyance. The student stood there holding his notebook uncertainly like an asshole.

“I know what the notes say: I wrote them,” he said, taking a tentative sip of his tea and deliberately looking anywhere but at the student.

“Uh, of course. Right,” the student stammered, lowering his notebook. The student had at least tried to look humbled then. “It’s only just that, uh, this term…” He raised the notebook as if to point to one of the expressions then quickly lowered it and corrected course, “I mean, um, the third term in the expansion of the error rate on the first line doesn’t seem to appear in any of the following lines…”

“It’s omitted because it converges to zero. It’s negligible.” He couldn’t actually remember what the third term in the expansion was; he’d written those notes more than a decade ago. But he had not only written the notes, they were based on the theory he developed. His theory, which had been published in top-tier journals, had been presented in seminars at the best departments in the world, and celebrated in keynote addresses. The material in those notes had, in large part, made his career. Of course, one tiny error wouldn’t change that. But there wasn’t an error – he could think circles around some pissant student. “I’m sure you can figure it out.”

“It’s only, well, I thought that might be the case, but I couldn’t show it goes to zero.”

“Just because you can’t show it, doesn’t mean it can’t be shown,” he sneered, then started to move towards the door.

“Yes. But…”


“I’ve simulated it on a computer. And found an, um, counterexample. I think.”

That had given him pause. Students were careless, technically weak, and had poor intuition. But they were generally competent in computing.

“You should probably go over your code again.” The student nodded his punchable face. “Test it. Document it. If you still think you have a counterexample, then send it to me.”

He’d never read the code, of course. Student ideas were a flash in the pan. The student would find a mistake in his code or, more likely, abandon the enterprise altogether.

“Yes! Absolutely, I will do that.”

That should have been the end of the conversation. He should have been able to go back to his office, close the door, and spend the afternoon browsing the message boards of the American Mathematical Society and writing nasty comments about his colleagues under one of his many pseudonyms. But the smarmy weasel was still looking at him like he had more to say.

“Anything else?”

The student took a breath. “Well, it’s just that in Professor Nair’s seminar class we’ve been reading papers on optimal design.”

“Oh?” If the student was going to ask him to speak in the class, he might forgive the breakroom ambush.

“Yeah, and we just read a technical report by Shae et al. that’s coming out in the Bulletin of the American Mathematical Association. Have you seen it?”

“Of course I’ve seen it.” He hadn’t. There were too many articles coming out now. Too many journals. Most of them were overhyped trash anyway.

“Right. Sorry.” The student made a show of pretending to be uncomfortable. As though he hadn’t been intending to bring this up from the very beginning. “So what do you make of their main result?”
“What do you mean? It’s been a while since I’ve read it,” he lied.

“It contradicts your theorem…it says that there are no unbiased estimators…which would suggest that the third term in your expansion doesn’t go to zero.”

“You misread it.” He felt his face flush.

“That’s what I thought…but then I asked Professor Nair –”

“Look, I don’t have to explain myself to you.” It was intended as an insult. A way of telling the student they hadn’t earned the right to be considered seriously. If they didn’t understand something it was because they were too stupid or too inexperienced.

The student’s face collapsed and, for a moment, he felt the unique satisfaction of putting one of his lessers in their place.

“Of course, Professor,” the student had said. His voice no longer sounded deferential but patronizing. Pitying. “Thank you for your time.”

Back in his office, with the door closed and shades drawn, he opened a copy of his lecture notes on his laptop and really looked at them for the first time in years. He found the third term in his expansion. He pulled a tattered yellow legal pad from his desk and fished a pen from his pocket. He drew a number one in the top right corner of the page and circled it. Underneath that he wrote the date. He let the pen hover over the first line. He set the pen down and opened a browser window to the message boards of the American Mathematical Society.

About the author

Eric Laber is professor of Statistical Science at Duke University. He
has recently taken an interest in writing things with fewer greek
symbols and more adjectives. He is passionate about STEM outreach, you can read more about his work at