“What's it like living with a mathematician?” I hear this question a lot—probably more than if I were married to almost any other kind of professional. What is implied is: What are “they” really like?—as if they were exotic beings from another planet. And indeed, someone who does math all day long, eagerly thinks about it in his spare time and on vacation, and sees it as “beautiful” is, frankly, NOT like most of us.
I've spent many years living around university research mathematicians as I've tagged along to countless dinners and conferences, spent vacations with mathematician friends, and shared stories with math-spouses over many a walk or cup of tea. Out of curiosity I've informally asked my husband and his colleagues about what they do, how they came to this career, and why they work so hard despite lower pay than in many other positions they could probably hold. I've also discussed with a lot of other math spouses how this career choice impacts their lives. Eventually, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to try to explain to non-mathematicians like my friends what this life is like. In the past year I've also explicitly contacted over a dozen friends who are (or were) also math-spouses to check that my observations and experiences are not anomalous. My attempt here is not meant to be social science research or tabloid fodder. Rather, it merely reflects my own curiosity and desire to open a window on the mathematician's world from my decidedly non-mathematical but nearby vantage point. Unfortunately, my sample is largely limited to the male of the species, as there have been few women research mathematicians of my generation.
By the way, the quick answer to the initial question above is: living with them can be great, but yes, sometimes they do seem to live on another planet.
What Do They Do?
Many of us non-mathematicians have no clue what research mathematicians do when they are “doing math.” A good reason for this, they tell me, is that it is not what our high school or most college math courses entailed. How were we to know? They were called “math” courses.