Computer-generated nonsense accepted for publication by a mathematics journal

The strike back against Alan Sokal has been 15 years coming.

In 1998, physicist Alan Sokal decided to prove that the impenetrable language used by various post-modernists rendered their work incomprehensible, not only to the public at large, but even to other post-modernists.

Sokal submitted an article, intended as a joke, to an American academic journal called Social Text. John Sturrock, writing in the LRB in 1999, summed up Sokal's aim:

This Duke University periodical likes, by the sound of it, to give air-space to the arguments of the epistemic relativists and other anti-foundationalists. Sokal knew the sort of thing the editors favoured, and he sent them a ‘parody’, as he puts it, entitled ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’. The text of this reappears as an Appendix in Intellectual Impostures, though by the time you get to it, whatever life might have been left in the joke has been well and truly eroded by the content of the earlier chapters. The ‘parody’ makes relativist claims – for, to take an example more glaring than most, a ‘relational and contextual concept of geometry’ – so far out, as Sokal sees it, for the editors of Social Text to have realised that they were being had and to have turned it down.

While Sturrock mounted an admirable defence of Social Text's editors, the hoax was widely seen as an embarrassment for the publication, and a killer blow from Sokal in his self-declared "science wars".

If there ever was such a thing, however, fifteen years later it appears that the humanities may be equalising the score. The LRB blog reports:

Last month That’s Mathematics! reported another landmark event in the history of academic publishing. A paper by Marcie Rathke of the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople had been provisionally accepted for publication in Advances in Pure Mathematics.

The paper, "Independent, Negative, Canonically Turing Arrows of Equations and Problems in Applied Formal PDE" has the abstract:

Let ρ = A. Is it possible to extend isomorphisms? We show that D´ is stochastically orthogonal and trivially affine. In [10], the main result was the construction of p-Cardano, compactly Erdős, Weyl functions. This could shed important light on a conjecture of Conway–d’Alembert.

And concludes:

Now unfortunately, we cannot assume that                              


The LRB's Paul Taylor explains:                       

Baffled? You should be. Each of these sentences contains mathematical nouns linked by the verbs mathematicians use, but the sentences scarcely connect with each other. The paper was created using Mathgen, an online random maths paper generator. Mathgen has a set of rules that define how papers are arranged in sections and what kinds of sentence make up a section and how those sentences are made up from different categories of technical and non-technical words. It creates beautifully formatted papers with the conventional structure, complete with equations and citations but, alas, totally devoid of meaning.

A computer. Not the one which wrote the article. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Forbidden forests: how Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows saved the trees

How Bloomsbury used the Harry Potter series to make publishing eco-friendly.

“Of all the trees we could have hit, we had to hit one that hits back,” says Harry of the Whomping Willow, which successfully whomps both him and Ron when they arrive at Hogwarts by car. The incident is representative of a natural world that often appears remarkably robust in JK Rowling's original series. There is little sign of wizards being plagued by air pollution or acid rain. And while Dementors may lurk in the shadows, climate change does not.

Yet just as Rowling's wands pay tribute to the trees they're hewn from – with their hawthorn, holly and hornbeam woods as key to their construction as their pheonix feather or unicorn hair cores – so too would her books.

By the time The Deathly Hallows was published in 2007, all its UK texts, jackets and cases were printed on forest-friendly paper. The move by Rowling and Bloomsbury “sent a clear signal to the rest of the world”, says Greenpeace’s Jamie Woolley, and was “the catalyst” for other publishers to follow suit.

The Potter transformation was inspired by a Greenpeace campaign. In the same year that the fifth Harry Potter went to press, their “Paper Trail” report revealed that the UK book publishing industry was unwittingly sourcing paper from vulnerable ancient forests in Finland and Canada.

Change spiralled from there. In 2005, Bloomsbury printed the UK’s hardback version of The Half Blood Prince on 30% Forest Stewardship Council certified paper. By 2007, the US publisher Scholastic had pledged that the first 12 million copies of The Deathly Hallows would all be printed on paper that was at least partly recycled or sustainable.

Thanks to this shift, UK books labeled with the Forest Stewardship Council’s (FSC) logo are now becoming the rule rather than the exception. Over half of all British adults now recognize the mark, numerous UK publishers have upped their proportion of paper taken from FSC certified sources, and Penguin and Harper Collins have both pledged to reach 100 percent FSC sourced paper in the next three years.

But the challenge is also far from over. According to the FSC, many European and US publishers outsource their manufacturing to China, where imported timber from Indonesia is accompanied by one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world.

In the UK, just 13 percent of land is covered by trees and a recent report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee criticised forest regulation as “not fit for purpose”.

So what can readers do to help? The FSC recommends looking out for its logo on any book you buy. And if that's not enough to satisfy, the Harry Potter Alliance has created a guide to fighting climate change for fans. 

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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