Apparently …

Recently I found a link to my blog from a site I didn’t recognise, which turned out to be frequented by climate change deniers for the most part. One of the comments referred to

… Peter Cameron who, apparently, is a professor of mathematics at Queen Mary’s.

“Apparently” is a curious word. Let P be an assertion, and consider the following pairs of sentences:

  • “Clearly P” v “It is clear that P”
  • “Obviously P” v “It is obvious that P”
  • “Evidently P” v “It is evident that P”

The same in each case (though you might feel just a little uneasy about the last one). But how about

  • “Apparently Peter Cameron is a professor of mathematics” v “It is apparent that Peter Cameron is a professor of mathematics”

I would say that these are not the same at all, and that the first one casts doubt on the proposition while the second one doesn’t.

One of my closest collaborators and friends was Jack van Lint, who died recently. Jack (like most Dutch people) spoke English (and several other languages) fluently: he spent time as a child in Australia and the USA, and his accent would raise no suspicion of his foreignness in either of those places. (This is not quite true. He told me that he was once in a liquor store in New Jersey, and asked for a six-pack of Grolsch, which of course he pronounced in the correct Dutch way. The shopkeeper, whose back was turned at the time, answered him in Dutch before he had even turned around.)

In fact Jack’s English was so good that he used to correct my writing in some of our joint papers. So I was very pleased to be able to point out to him, when he used the word “apparently”, that he really meant “clearly”.

Sad to say, when I went away and looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, I found that both usages of “apparently” are correct.

But in any case, I assure RichieRich and his/her friends that, at present, I really am a professor of mathematics at Queen Mary …

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About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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3 Responses to Apparently …

  1. I wonder if this Richie Rich is a descendent of Sir Richard Rich, Henry VIII’s chief minister after Thomas Cromwell got the chop.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Rich,_1st_Baron_Rich

    Sir Richard had about 15 children, most of whom inherited his estates and prospered, and I read somewhere that genealogists reckon that a fair proportion of the indigenous population of Essex are descended from him.

    I must say, Peter, your posts are very interesting, although some are over my head. It’s a shame about all this performance measuring you lament in another post; but ironically, that seems to some extent a consequence of educators and administrators trying to ape their betters in science and maths by formalizing their decision making!

    • And, as Robert May said, the economic crisis was at least partly due to bankers aping mathematicians without understanding the hypotheses behind the results they use.

  2. More light on the word “Apparently”: see today’s episode of XKCD.

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