Doctor Haggis!

Dr Haggis, the knot surgeon. Not to be confused with real doctors who do surgery on people.

Well, one step closer to Dr Haggis at least! As you may have surmised from the comments and Twitter feed, I did indeed pass the viva yesterday, and have just some minor corrections to complete before I can be officially awarded my title. I promise to use it responsibly!

As expected, the defence was quite enjoyable, and it felt more like an extended seminar than an exam. We got off to a late start because the ‘Non-Examining Chair of the Examination Board’ (thanks Laura!) didn’t show up. Since the internal examiner Mark had never examined a thesis before, we needed a third person to keep an eye on him; eventually a substitute was found, and it was Chris Smyth, who is actually my second supervisor. I really hope there isn’t some rule against this which makes the viva null and void!

So after that brief faff I began proceedings by giving a little presentation summarising the aims, importance and main results of the thesis. Although intended to be only 15-20 minutes long, it was easily 45 minutes with all the interruptions and questions by Brendan and Mark!

I thought it would be a bit pointless summarising results which they already knew, having read carefully through the thesis, but of all the chapters I think it was my main results chapter which they hadn’t read in detail. Disappointingly, they didn’t spot the mistake in one of my big proofs, which I had frantically spent the last week trying (and eventually succeeding) to correct! It does make me wonder how many incorrect results actually manage to pass through vivas and referees, and how many never get noticed. Is it any better in the other science disciplines?

Talking about my own results was the easiest part of the viva. The kinds of questions I failed at answering were the ‘elementary’ ones. Results that are written in so many textbooks that you take them for granted without making the effort to understand the proof. And there were even a couple of questions that none of us, even the examiners, could answer! Hopefully I will sort these out in the coming week.

Thesis examiners

Brendan Owens, Julia and Mark Grant. I am wearing my lucky Seifert surfaces.

At this point I’d like to say a big thank you to Mark and Brendan for being such great examiners and for helping me to feel relaxed about the whole thing. They caught lots of my mistakes but also gave me much-needed encouragement that my results were important and interesting.

The viva was over 4 hours in the end (fairly long for a maths defence) and poor Andrew (my supervisor) was pacing the corridors ‘like an expectant father’ (in his own words). There were many sighs of relief when the examiners finally delivered the verdict, and much drinking of alcohol afterwards! Thank you also to all those who emailed, texted, tweeted or otherwise conveyed messages of congratulations, especially little sister Suzanne who seemed very emotional about it!

I now have 8 days to complete all corrections, get the thesis printed, bound and signed and handed in, so that I can graduate at the ceremony in June. Of course, if I miss the deadline it’s not the end of the world, as I can graduate in November instead, but all of Julia’s family are coming up to Edinburgh in the hopes of seeing some be-robed students, so I had better make the effort. It’ll be a tight deadline, but since the corrections are all pretty minor I think I can do it if I work hard.

And then I shall be free! I pledge now to

  • Do more exercise
  • Do more blogging
  • Do more mathematical knitting
  • Do more exploring of interesting places
  • Do more exciting public engagement things
  • Do more keeping up with poor neglected friends
  • Do more cooking of healthy things
  • Do more enjoying of the beautiful Edinburgh summer weather

But for now, I shall simply be doing more sleeping!  G’night all!

P.S. Congratulations are also due to my mathematical brother Mark Powell, who passed his viva on Monday, beating me by 2 days. Grr.


10 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Wilma on May 13, 2011 at 4:56 am

    Congratulations and what pray tell is mathematical knitting? I’ve just taken up regular knitting in the last couple of years and you’ve piqued my curiosity.


  2. Hooray! That’s fantastic 🙂 good luck with making your deadline. What was the trickiest question you got asked?

    My viva was in the region of four hours too, but my little presentation at the start stretched to fill the whole time!!!


    • Posted by haggisthesheep on May 17, 2011 at 12:35 pm

      Thank you! The trickiest questions were the elementary ones, such as “Why is the concordance group well-defined under connected sum and transitivity?”, and “If V is a Seifert matrix of a knot, then can the determinant of V – transpose(V) ever be equal to -1?”. The questions about my own research and results were easy in comparison! Think I’ve figured them all out now though.
      Wow – a 4-hour presentation! Sounds like you got some hard-working examiners too!


  3. Posted by Hugh on May 13, 2011 at 8:31 am

    Ooh, congratulations! And yay for more mathematical knitting — do you have anything in particular planned?


    • Posted by haggisthesheep on May 17, 2011 at 12:29 pm

      Not yet – new ideas are very welcome! And remember that I’m a beginner so not able to read any difficult patterns… Maybe a Klein bottle if I can figure it out?


  4. Four hours, man you mathematical bods talk alot. I thought my viva was long and it was only 2 hours and i am a social scientist. I think after 4 i’d have lost the will to live so very very well done. I’m also uber impressed with anyone who can do their corrections in 8 days it took me 2 months to do mine and i didnt have many. What do they ask you to correct in maths? what does a maths PhD look like how long etc?

    As for the reading i think my examiners well, i know they read all 300 pages of mine but different discipline. Its interesting to know what different subjects do.


    • Posted by haggisthesheep on May 17, 2011 at 12:47 pm

      Thanks for all the support and congratulations. The corrections are mainly typos (both grammatical and mathematical) and adding in sentences to make the maths a bit more rigorous. There are a couple of more serious corrections, such as having to check a proof which isn’t quite correct and adding in more worked examples of the calculations I did. But I’ve done most of them already and am hopeful to get the rest done by Friday!

      My PhD was 131 pages, which is probably average for a maths PhD. Theses of less than 100 pages are less common but not unheard of (and they are generally the best ones!) and more than 200 pages are also very uncommon (unless there are a lot of pictures or calculations). In maths, clarity and conciseness is highly valued. Some discussion of the intuition behind the ideas is probably valued by the examiners, but is much less important than the ideas themselves. And when the ideas are published in a journal, that intuition section will be entirely deleted! It can actually be daunting for a young mathematician to read a maths paper, because it seems like the ideas appear fully and perfectly formed inside the mathematician’s head, rather than indicating the tortuous mental route that was taken to find them.

      It’s definitely interesting to read about how a thesis is written in other disciplines. Am hoping for more comments on the matter!


      • Posted by Kizzy the dog on May 18, 2011 at 9:55 pm

        I think the thesis of Kizzzthedog came in at 53 pages 🙂 and it was not one of the best :p I hope it is all about quality rather than quantity (I beat my supervisor by 29 pages though and I still brag about it whenever I see him!)

        Congratualtions again Haggis! 🙂

  5. Posted by Maxwell on May 21, 2011 at 12:12 am

    Congratulations on passing your viva!

    With regard to incorrect results (unintentional or otherwise) getting through into a finished thesis, yes, it does very definitely happen in Chemistry.

    A thesis I came across recently included one crystal structure in particular which is a piece of epic chemistry fail. *ANYONE* who has ever seen a crystal structure would be able to see what was wrong with it and the educated structural chemist would/should then start asking questions. One carbon atom was wandering around on its own – this was not methane! This is caused by a software glitch which finds atoms where there are none (due to a sequence termination error). The PhD student in question ignored this, put the atom in and carried on. Still got a PhD too :-/

    For more chemical fail, in the literature, I’ve come across a paper containing a unit cell (basically a parallelepiped) with the following sides a = 3.3; b = 5.7; c = 1.3 and angles bc = 14deg; ac = 8deg; ab = 35deg. If Haggis can draw this I would be very impressed!!


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