Paranoia! Paranoia everywhere!

It’s another story of an airline passenger reporting “suspicious activity” and holding up a flight. In this case, the nefarious act was…doing mathematics. A woman complained about the swarthy man (he was Italian!) scribbling obscure marks intently on a piece of paper. I’m not quite sure why a terrorist would precede an attack by doing a bunch of calculations. Maybe she remembers this cartoon.

Yeah, you never can trust those sneaky math people.

Wait. The office right next to mine is occupied by a statistician…and the one across the hall by a mathematician. I’m surrounded! I should go to the division chair and beg to be relocated to a safer office, but she’s a statistician, too! They’ve taken over!


  1. Menyambal says

    Whew! I was just trying to understand relativity, and was thinking I need to start drawing diagrams. Good thing I didn’t put pen to paper.

  2. says

    I am a mathematician AND arab… and I had already imagined the same scenario happening to me. I thought it was me who was paranoid!

  3. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    it was Differential Equations. Those swarthy squiggles called “del”, “div”, and “curl”, and curvy variables, not the clear numbers of merikan ritmatik. Throw in a little paranoia and it could look like he was writing secret code note to be hand passed to a neighboring passenger.
    It’s inconceivable that just because some random says to a stewardess that another passenger is writing “suspiciously”, and the flight staff will pull him off to be questioned.

  4. Morgan!? ♥ ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ says

    I can just hear the bimbo who suspected the gentleman of being a terrorist saying, “but math is hard!”

    I was good at math in grammar school, but when I got to middle school I got neatly undermined. On the first day of class, the ancient harridan math teacher handed out a test, saying anyone who didn’t do well on the test could not think abstractly and would be forced to drop the class. I was twelve years old, shy, very easily intimidated, and promptly succumbed to test anxiety. Being forced to miss that class at that time precluded my catching up, such was the structure of the program. But it didn’t matter, I was just a girl. So I went on to achieve high honors in English. Now, at my very advanced age, I think I might go back and tackle math. Might be fun.

  5. EveryZig says

    We are now living in that joke about suspected agents of Al-Gebra with absolute values and irrational means.

  6. redwood says

    Just remember, whenever you fly, put your Bland™ faces on. Don’t show any emotion or interest in anything. Oh, and no non-Murican accents, either.

  7. Ed Seedhouse says

    Well,if we’re living in the Charlie Stross “Laundry” universe it would be just common sense to arrest her and dragoon her into the “Laundry” or the American equivalent. Just sayin…

  8. Ryan Cunningham says

    Y’all seen the video for Radiohead’s new tune “Burn the Witch”? Makes a pretty poignant statement about all this paranoia in the air.

  9. wzrd1 says

    Talk about being surrounded, on one side, the dark arts of mathematics, on the other, the darkest of the dark arts, statistics.
    Fortunately, in the middle, a defense against the dark arts professor, a biologist.

    At least the woman deplaned and stayed deplaned. Now, is she to be billed for the lost connections of the other passengers and the airline’s wasted fuel?
    Nah, more than likely, she’s bragging about how she stopped a terrorist or something.

  10. says

    Makes me want to start calling a flight attendant if I see someone on a plane with a bible. Christians are crazy fuckers that have a long history of terroristic violence.

  11. mond says

    You really have to watch out for statisticians.
    They have produced figures about how likely you are to get killed by a terrorist.
    How do they know?
    Unless they are in cahoots with the terrorists.
    Lock ’em all up and throw away the key.

  12. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Better watch out PZ, I’m sure the Ivy the Devil Cat™ is planning on studying statistics. Just as soon as she is done with her nap(s).

  13. Mrdead Inmypocket says

    Can’t be too careful when confronting a mathematician there are too many random variables. It’s difficult to pick out any sine of a bigger problem. The woman obviously saw him write 2n + 2n which was 4n to her, this made her suspicious. I mean, the number one prime factor in all of this is, can we differentiate between good and bad mathematicians. You never know if this guy was plotting something in the background.

    Um… okay I’m all punned out.


  14. michaelnoone says

    Just remember that 99% of statisticians use mathematics on a daily basis

  15. blf says

    The professor himself was not very amused, “perturbed by a system that ‘relies on the input of people who may be completely clueless’.” One of the readers of the linked-to article observes:

    [I]t seems she did an equation of her own.

    Probability P, this guys was a terrorist:

      P(race, behaviour) = Dark skin * Strange characters

    But, she forgot to divide by her ignorance, and that’s a very big number. […]

  16. carlie says

    I was about to send this to a mathematician friend as a “can you believe this??” light-hearted thing, then remembered they have a slightly dark complexion and an accent, and realized it’s actually terrifying.

  17. Saad says

    It seems it’s not safe for the brownish-skinned to fly with white people.

  18. Mobius says

    And remember, the Unibomber was a mathematician. When mathematicians go bad, they go REALLY bad.

  19. Nick Gotts says

    On my latest train journey from Scotland to Italy, my pabulum reading was The Ides of April, a “feisty-female-detective-in-first-century-Rome” story by Lindsay Davis. Along with a couple of howling anachronisms, her narrator-heroine asserted that mathematics was regarded as highly suspicious activity at the time (the emperor, Domitian, was a paranoid tyrant, at least according to the limited sources we have). All those diagrams and strange symbols must be either assassination plots or curses directed at the emperor, you see. I’ll have to check this out.

  20. blf says

    Nothing brings down an airliner quite like someone circulating a note with a mathematical proof that jet fuel does not burn.

    The note only said there was a proof, complaining “the mirror in the toilet is too small for the full proof”.

  21. Nick Gotts says


    How about a new “Moments of Political Madness” thread. I tried to post on the current one, and got a “Comments are closed”.

  22. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    This is not just some imaginary threat. Mathematicians are always consorting with radicals, trying to divide our country. Vigilance is integral to our safety, else the danger will multiply exponentially.


  23. blf says

    QED = al-Qaeda
    The danger is now revealed! All “proofs” are terrorist plots!! Euclid’s Elements is bomb-making manual!!!

  24. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    more OT:

    How about a new “Moments of Political Madness” thread. I tried to post on the current one, and got a “Comments are closed”.

    at least you got the part I ‘striked out’ [sic]. When I went to the Political Madness thread (to add a little tidbit), I just got the thread only, with no empty box at the bottom waiting to be filled in.
    Otherwise, seconding the request to reopen the thread for random lurkers to add relevant comments with some magic to prevent hijackers.

  25. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    how long before some “brown person”, gets thrown off a plane after just doodling random scribbles on his personal Moleskin notebook? After this, I expect not long. like the title of this thread, Paranoia is the dominant mind set flowing around, all over.

  26. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    How about a new “Moments of Political Madness” thread. I tried to post on the current one, and got a “Comments are closed”.

    On the left sidebar is the commenting rules, and just under that, “report a problem”. Report the problem, and when PZ sees it, a new thread will very likely appear. I did that recently with the Interesting Stuff thread.

  27. chigau (違う) says

    Q: What is a topologist?
    A: Someone who cannot distinguish between a doughnut and a coffee cup.

    Shamelessly stolen from SomewhereOnTheInternets.

  28. WhiteHatLurker says

    Struggling to not respond that it might be a reason for profiling those with a particular set of light shades of hair colour …

  29. dianne says

    I was about to send this to a mathematician friend as a “can you believe this??” light-hearted thing, then remembered they have a slightly dark complexion and an accent, and realized it’s actually terrifying.

    My partner is a bearded, curly haired astronomer who procrastinates on getting his talks ready and often finishes them on the plane. I’m now worried about someone seeing his simulations of star formation and thinking that they’re simulations of bombs or something.

    I would point out, in his seat mate’s defense, that this is what people are told to do. “If you see something, say something” and all that. She was probably genuinely concerned because people in the US are being taught to think of everyone around them as potential terrorists and to regard them with suspicion just in case.

  30. wzrd1 says

    @Dianne, as one who returned home on leave from the Persian Gulf and was given the grand treatment by the TSSA at Reagan international – despite carrying a classified document courier card, US CENTCOM ID and US SOCCENT ID card, yeah, it’s that chilling.
    I got nailed when my wife started cramping, due to a miscarriage in progress and had the poor graces to get out of line and get her a wheelchair.
    That triggered the TSSA “behavioral detection officer”, who acted like a school snitch when reporting my getting a wheelchair, required her to stand for 45 minutes next to her wheelchair (she’s also disabled, but the Americans with disabilities act means nothing to the TSSA) and had me in a booth for much of that time. It wasn’t until an alert screener noticed I was examining with interest the magnetic lock and hinge points that I was released from their booth and I darted to my ID’s, which weren’t supposed to be outside of my possession.
    At that point, any interference with my movement would’ve resulted in a very, very unfortunate incident. One involving depopulating the checkpoint, as our travel history was one involving exclusively using secure US airbases.

    I use TSSA intentionally, steal a page out of the USSR travel manual, inherit their name.
    As for clearing the checkpoint, it’d have been treated as an unfortunate incident and buried. At the time, my primary job was terrorizing terrorists for a living and command hated my later retirement enough to sit on my packet for eight months.
    It was finally accepted and processed when command realized I was studying flight schedules on aircraft I was familiar with and signed out a parachute. True story.

  31. rrhain says

    Back in the 80s, my best friend and I were doing a summer semester in England that included a tour of Europe. We were on the hoverboat ferry across the Channel and she was sitting next to another woman. She was Polish and spoke very little English and my friend spoke no Polish…but it turns out that she was a mathematician. My friend, a physics major, then got out a piece of paper and pencil and they started writing physics and math equations at each other.

    Ah, but they were white women, so no harm.

    I’m a mathematician, too, and I had always heard the cliche that mathematics was the language of the universe.

    Too bad some of us can’t read.

    The only good thing about this is that they took the woman who was complaining off the plane rather than the one who did nothing wrong. “Yes, ma’am? What’s that? You have a concern about another passenger? Yes, what is it? He’s writing something? What is he writing? You don’t know? Well, I’m sorry, ma’am but is there something specific you had in mind? Why would we bother him just because you don’t understand what he’s writing? It’s very rude to eavesdrop and that includes reading over someone’s shoulder, ma’am. I’m sure he would not appreciate you trying to sneak a peek at what he’s doing any more than you would appreciate him looking at the contents of your purse if it were opened. We have many people who do work on these planes and while this isn’t the most private of spaces, it is common courtesy not to stare at other people’s work.”

    Is that really so hard to say? And should the woman make a fuss, “I’m sorry for your displeasure, ma’am, but if you are truly uncomfortable flying on this plane, you are free to disembark. We will not be delaying the flight and while we will do our best to retrieve any baggage you may have checked, we cannot guarantee it. As a courtesy, we will try to book you on the next available flight, but that may not be until tomorrow and we will not be granting you any vouchers or accommodations as you voluntarily removed yourself from the flight.”

  32. alkisvonidas says

    I once traveled with a Rubik’s Cube stashed in my hand baggage, and fiddled with it during the flight. You know, plastic multi-colored cube, rotating faces, gentle clicking sounds… it’s a miracle I wasn’t thrown out an airlock :-|

  33. DLC says

    In the movie “Terror By Night” , Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes briefly suspects a train’s baggage car attendant when he notices the man doing mathematics on a sheet of paper. Perhaps this ninny saw the movie and thought the man was going to start shooting people with an air gun. And perhaps she needs her head examined.