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Last year I wrote a blog post on being wrong. I also wrote a blog post about being wrong three years ago. It’s not fun to admit being wrong, but sometimes it’s necessary. I have to admit to being wrong again.

To place this admission in context I need to start with Mordell’s finite basis theorem, which has been on my mind this past week. The theorem, proved in 1922, states the rational points on an elliptic curve defined over the rational numbers form a finitely generated abelian group. There is quite a bit of math jargon in this statement that makes it seem somewhat esoteric, but it’s actually a beautiful, fundamental, and accessible result at the crossroads of number theory and algebraic geometry.

First, the phrase elliptic curve is just a fancy name for a polynomial equation of the form y² = x³ + ax + b (subject to some technical conditions). “Defined over the rationals” just means that and b are rational numbers. For example a=-36, b=0 or a=0, b=-26 would each produce an elliptic curve. A “rational point on the curve” refers to a solution to the equation whose coordinates are rational numbers. For example, if we’re looking at the case where a=0 and b=-26 then the elliptic curve is y² = x³ – 26 and one rational solution would be the point (35,-207). This solution also happens to be an integer solution; try to find some others! Elliptic curves are pretty and one can easily explore them in WolframAlpha. For example, the curve y² = x³ – 36x looks like this:

WolframAlpha does more than just provide a picture. It finds integer solutions to the equation. In this case just typing the equation for the elliptic curve into the WolframAlpha box produces:

One of the cool things about elliptic curves is that the points on them form the structure of an abelian group. That is to say, there is a way to “add” points on the curves. I’m not going to go through how this works here but there is a very good introduction to this connection between elliptic curves and groups in an exposition by Tanuj Nayak, an undergrad at Carnegie Mellon University.

Interestingly, even just the rational points on an elliptic curve form a group, and Mordell’s theorem says that for an elliptic curve defined over the rational numbers this group is finitely generated. That means that for such an elliptic curve one can describe all rational points on the curve as finite combinations of some finite set of points. In other words, we (humankind) has been interested in studying Diophantine equations since the time of Diophantus (3rd century). Trying to solve arbitrary polynomial equations is very difficult, so we restrict our attention to easier problems (elliptic curves). Working with integers is difficult, so we relax that requirement a bit and work with rational numbers. And here is a theorem that gives us hope, namely the hope that we can find all solutions to such problems because at least the description of the solutions can be finite.

The idea of looking for all solutions to a problem, and not just one solution, is fundamental to mathematics. I recently had the pleasure of attending a lesson for 1st and 2nd graders by Oleg Gleizer, an exceptional mathematician who takes time not only to teach children mathematics, but to develop mathematics (not arithmetic!) curriculum that is accessible to them. The first thing Oleg asks young children is what they see when looking at this picture:

Children are quick to find the answer and reply either “rabbit” or “duck”. But the lesson they learn is that the answer to his question is that there is no single answer! Saying “rabbit” or “duck” is not a complete answer. In mathematics we seek all solutions to a problem. From this point of view, WolframAlpha’s “integer solutions” section is not satisfactory (it omits x=6, y=0), but while in principle one might worry that one would have to search forever, Mordell’s finite basis theorem provides some peace of mind for an important class of questions in number theory. It also guides mathematicians: if interested in a specific elliptic curve, think about how to find the (finite) generators for the associated group. Now the proof of Mordell’s theorem, or its natural generalization, the Mordell-Weil theorem, is not simple and requires some knowledge of algebraic geometry, but the statement of Mordell’s theorem and its meaning can be explained to kids via simple examples.

I don’t recall exactly when I learned Mordell’s theorem but I think it was while preparing for my qualifying exam in graduate school, when I studied Silverman’s book on elliptic curves for the cryptography section on my qualifying exam- yes, this math is even related to some very powerful schemes for cryptography! But I do remember when a few years later a (mathematician) friend mentioned to me “the coolest paper ever”, a paper related to generalizations of Mordell’s theorem, the very theorem that I had studied for my exam. The paper was by two mathematicians, Steven Zucker and David Cox, and it was titled Intersection Number of Sections of Elliptic Surfaces. The paper described an algorithm for determining whether some sections form a basis for the Mordell-Weil group for certain elliptic surfaces. The content was not why my friend thought this paper was cool, and in fact I don’t think he ever read it. The excitement was because of the juxtaposition of author names. Apparently David Cox had realized that if he could coauthor a paper with his colleague Steven Zucker, they could publish a theorem, which when named after the authors, would produce a misogynistic and homophobic slur. Cox sought out Zucker for this purpose, and their mission was a “success”. Another mathematician, Charles Schwartz, wrote a paper in which he built on this “joke”. From his paper:

So now, in the mathematics literature, in an interesting part of number theory, you have the Cox-Zucker machine. Many mathematicians think this is hilarious. I thought this was hilarious. In fact, when I was younger I frequently boasted about this “joke”, and how cool mathematicians are for coming up with clever stuff like this.

I was wrong.

I first started to wonder about the Zucker and Cox stunt when a friend pointed out to me, after I had used the term C-S to demean someone, that I had just spouted a misogynistic and homophobic slur. I started to notice the use of the C-S phrase all around me and it made me increasingly uncomfortable. I stopped using it. I stopped thinking that the Zucker-Cox stunt was funny (while noticing the irony that the sexual innuendo they constructed was much more cited than their math), and I started to think about the implications of this sort of thing for my profession. How would one explain the Zucker-Cox result to kids? How would undergraduates write a term paper about it without sexual innuendo distracting from the math? How would one discuss the result, the actual math, with colleagues? What kind of environment emerges when misogynistic and homophobic language is not only tolerated in a field, but is a source of pride by the men who dominate it?

These questions have been on my mind this past week as I’ve considered the result of the NIPS conference naming deliberation. This conference was named in 1987 by founders who, as far as I understand, did not consider the sexual connotations (they dismissed the fact that the abbreviation is a racial slur since they considered it all but extinct). Regardless of original intentions I write this post to lend my voice to those who are insisting that the conference change its name. I do so for many reasons. I hear from many of my colleagues that they are deeply offended by the name. That is already reason enough. I do so because the phrase NIPS has been weaponized and is being used to demean and degrade women at one of the main annual machine learning conferences. I don’t make this claim lightly. Consider, for example, TITS 2017 (the (un)official sister event to NIPS). I’ve thought about this specific aggression a lot because in mathematics there is a mathematician by the name of Tits who has many important objects named after him (e.g. Tits buildings). So I have worked through the thought experiment of trying to understand why I think it’s wrong to name a conference NIPS but I’m fine talking about the mathematician Tits. I remember when I first learned of Tits buildings I was taken aback for a moment. But I learned to understand the name Tits as French and I pronounce it as such in my mind and with my voice when I use it. There is no problem there, nor is there a problem with many names that clash across cultures and languages. TITS 2017 is something completely different. It is a deliberate use of NIPS and TITS in a way that can and will make many women uncomfortable. As for NIPS itself perhaps there is a “solution” to interpreting the name that doesn’t involve a racial slur or sexual innuendo (Neural Information Processing Systems). Maybe some people see a rabbit. But others see a duck. All the “solutions” matter. The fact is many women are uncomfortable because instead of being respected as scientists, their bodies and looks have become a subtext for the science that is being discussed. This is a longstanding problem at NIPS (see e.g., Lenna). Furthermore, it’s not only women who are uncomfortable. I am uncomfortable with the NIPS name for the reasons I gave above, and I know many other men are as well. I’m not at ease at conferences where racial slurs and sexual innuendo are featured prominently, and if there are men who are (cf. NIPS poll data) then they should be ignored.

I think this is an extremely important issue not only for computer science, but for all of science. It’s about much more than a name of some conference. This is about recognizing centuries of discriminatory and exclusionary practices against women and minorities, and about eliminating such practices when they occur now rather than encouraging them. The NIPS conference must change their name. #protestNIPS