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The Joy of Mathematics

The Wall Street Journal recently had an article on the best and worst jobs in the U.S., based on a mix of criteria including pay, stress level, work environment and employment outlook.

Any guesses for the best jobs?

The top 5 are:

  1. Mathematician
  2. Actuary
  3. Statistician
  4. Biologist
  5. Software Engineer

The top three places reminds me of a line in an old episode of The Simpson’s where a space shuttle crew is described as consisting of “a statistician, a mathematician, and another kind of statistician.”

Interestingly, “Philosopher” came in very high on the list. I would have expected it to have a low stress level, no demands from the boss, “I need some epistemology ASAP and a first draft of aesthetics on my desk by the end of the week, or else the Miller account will take their business to the non-Western philosophy firm!” But I didn’t know the pay was good.

The worst jobs, of the 200 surveyed? Lumberjack, followed by Dairy farmer and Taxi Driver. I don’t know any lumberjacks, but my uncle is a dairy farmer in Wisconsin, and he seems happy and peaceful in his work.

{ 8 comments… add one }
  • Leo 2009/02/10, 03:48

    I think the Simpsons’ line was actually “A Mathemetician, a different kind of Mathemetician, and a Statistician” with a heavy emphasis on the “different kind” for astronaut number 2.

    It’s still one of my favourite lines from the Simpsons.

  • Rob 2009/02/10, 13:12

    Ah, yes, that is the line. It flows better than how I remembered it. You need to do it in a Tom Brokaw voice.

    Surely the geeks shall inherit the earth. Now if only I could get the “I’m I lumberjack and I’m OK” song out of my head…

  • stevenj 2009/02/11, 12:34

    Of course, if you believe movies like Good Will Hunting, mathematicians take no joy whatsoever in their work, and only do it because they can and want to be famous or out-do their peers. (And A Beautiful Mind was only slightly better in this regard.) Are there any films that portray mathematicians as delighting in mathematics for its own sake?

  • Rob 2009/02/11, 14:29

    Well, Hollywood likes the image of the half-crazed tortured genius. It needs conflict. Although there may be geniuses out there who are happy and well-adjusted, they don’t make good movies. That’s why the life of Mozart makes a better movie then, say, one based on Haydn.

    On the other hand, is there more than an anecdotal correlation between madness and genius? Is it just all a dramatic over-emphasis in biography? Or is there really something there? We maybe reaching the stage where, with proper medication and therapies, the likes of Beethoven, Nietzsche, Van Gough and Picasso can now be “cured”, and then what the loss will be…

    As for happy mathematicians, maybe Archimedes? Running through the streets of Syracuse, naked, yelling “Eureka!” seems to be a good example of someone who was not overly concerned with what the public or peers thought?

  • Steven G. Johnson 2009/02/12, 13:56

    Even so, Amadeus (like many movies about musicians) portrayed Mozart as being driven by a deep love for music, despite his problems. Screenwriters can understand musicians, artists, writers, and actors because they interact with them every day. Regardless of the demands of plot, I suspect that the real problem is that screenwriters just don’t understand the beauty and creativity involved in real mathematics, because they’ve never dealt with mathematics themselves since high-school algebra, nor do they know any mathematicians. Hence their warped view of the motivations of mathematicians.

  • Lucas 2009/02/12, 14:27

    For the life of me, I cannot understand why Software engineer is in the top 5, and Electrical engieer is rated so much lower at 62….

    I’m an electrical engineer by profession — I work side by side with software engineers — I take care of the hardware portion, they take care of the software portion. I like my job most of the time, if I don’t have to deal with politics (and of course when the software guys pull their head from the screens and actually understand how the hardware works… but that’s a different issue).

    In any case, it would seem software engineers would be more stressed than electrical engineers from their tedious coding, endless patches, revisions and compatibility issues.

  • NotZed 2009/02/22, 22:08

    It sounds like thier ranking criteria isn’t much a reflection on job satisfaction.

    Software enginner? For many, this amounts to being hunched over a keyboard in a crappy cube-farm working on shit that someone else thinks is important. It’s definitely high on the stress-o-meter as well, if you’re too bored it’s stressful, if you’re too busy it’s stressful, and even when you’re in the zone cranking out kloc’s of awesomeness, stress isn’t far away — often you need a bit of stress to reach your peak in the first place.

    Getting stressed just thinking about it!

    I just read some of the list – just reads like a random list of a few different careers out there. Bank teller and dentist on the same page? Really? Or telephone operator next to commercial airline pilot! Actually page 6 pretty much demonstrates the utter nonsense of this ranking.

  • Anonymous 2009/03/19, 08:47

    Ahahah…what a silly ranking. I have a deep feeling of being a mathematician/researcher and is for sure, the most demanding job I’ve ever done… risky, stressing, frustrating etc. In another study a few years ago it was classified as the #1 worst job in America so… :-)

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