Tetramodules in the Air

Three years after I moved to the U.S. and had my second child here, I got an NSF postdoc position at MIT. I had had a long break from my previous research in integrable systems, so I decided to start something new for me — quantum groups. Soon afterwards I invented tetramodules and published a paper about them.

Some time later a friend of mine showed me some papers where my tetromodules had been described long before me. I felt such pain, that I couldn’t work.

I was ashamed that the quality of my paper was compromised. I was very scared that someone might think that it wasn’t original work. I felt worthless for having wasted so much energy on something that was already known.

Afterwards, I discovered that tetramodules appeared in the literature under many other names: bidimodules, Hopf bimodules, two-sided two-cosided Hopf modules, 4-modules, bicovariant bimodules. That meant that many people were reinventing them at the same time. I felt slightly better knowing that I wasn’t alone, but was in fact part of a crowd. Still, my pain impeded my ability to work and do research.

I have just read an article in the New Yorker entitled “In the Air” about some famous discoveries made simultaneously by several people. It made me realize that I am still not over that tetramodules story from 15 years ago.

Being a mathematician requires one to be emotionally strong. You need high self-esteem. Do I need to overcome my emotions or is there a niche for very emotional mathematicians? Perhaps blogging about math is such a niche.



  1. Misha:

    A heart-breaking story… At least you hadn’t jumped off Building 54. Being emotional is an asset in mathematical research, since you notice things that less sensitive people are likely to overlook. It only becomes a liability if you fall apart when things don’t quite work out. And of course, the rotten winner-takes-it-all, you-are-nothing-unless-you-are-a-superstar, it-is-worth-nothing-unless-nobody-else-has-done-it culture of the hyper-competitive academia doesn’t help.

  2. SpeedKills:

    Your last paragraph holds in pretty much any field whether in science or in economy not just in mathematics. Thus, it is probably not so much about self-esteem and emotions, but about what makes you happy. Either you are a competitive person, then you _have_ to accept that you will loose at least sometimes, or you are not, then you should not compete. Blogging might be your solution. Teaching might also be a solution.

Leave a comment