If you are a longtime follower of this blog, you probably got lost in recent posts about a band, 21 pilots, and the stories waved around their albums Blurryface, Trench, Scaled and Icy, and soon to be released: Clancy.

Suffice it to say that this story, ‘Dema-lore’ as they call it, involves riddles about the Bourbaki group and Andre Weil, and you know I can’t resist any of those. That’s why.

But then, perhaps this story is all too recognisable for far too many early career mathematicians. So, in this post I’ll try to pitch it that way.

To get everyone on the same page at the start of the Clancy-era, the pilots released a summary of Dema-lore. It’s just 4 minutes long so if you’re new to all that ‘Dema-lore’, may I suggest to watch it first?

Twenty years ago Peter Woit and Lee Smolin addressed the problem of Groupthink in Physics, and in particular in String Theory, in their books ‘Not Even Wrong’ and ‘The Trouble with Physics’:

But, the modus operandi of groupthink is not restricted to Physics. I’ve seen it at work in almost every niche-topic in mathematics I encountered.

Right, now keep this one word, groupthink, in mind and watch the clip again. This time, block out the visuals and concentrate on the story.

I am trapped
Stuck in a cycle I have never been able to break
I want to believe this is the last time, but
I don’t know for sure

I am a citizen of an old city
Well, they say it’s old, but there’s just no proof
I can feel my friends rolling their eyes
I’ll keep it simple

I am a citizen of Dema
a circular cement city in the lower portion
of an otherwise wild and green continent, Trench
We aren’t allowed to go out there
Most haven’t seen it. But I have

You’re a starting Ph.D. student in mathematics. Your advisor has suggested you’d work in the niche-topic (s)he works in.

(S)he tells you it is a very important branch of mathematics, but you’ve seen enough of mathematics to question this.

I am an escapee
Getting better at it with every attempt
But they always find me
Well, he does
Nico
Or, Blurryface is what he calls himself
He’s the leader of the nine Bishops
who govern the city

Their authority comes from two things
a miraculous power and a hijacked religion
One feeds the other
A cycle
It’s called Vialism
And all you really need to know
is that it teaches that self-destruction
is the only way to paradise
It also conveniently allows you
to become an available vessel for the Bishops to use

And that’s where the miracle comes in
We call it seizing
The rules are
that you can only seize, or control, a dead body
and only for a short while
Also, they, the Bishops
are the only ones who can do it

This niche-topic has its key figures, your advisor may be one of them (which would be nice), but probably (s)he is only aspiring to become one of them, one day.

These people get their power from managing the journals in which you tend to publish, and because they’re asked to write letters of reference, judging your contributions to the topic.

If you try to enter another topic, they’ll get you back, because now you experience that it is much harder to get your results published or get enough support. These key leaders have hijacked part of mathematics, they want a large group around them to self-convince them of their importance.

You are only important to them in as much as you give them plenty of references, and spread their message at conferences.

I am a citizen
I am an escapee
And I am an exception to the rule

Okay this is what happened recently
I tricked Nico into taking me outside the walls
I created a fiery diversion
I escaped
I wandered
grew weak
and was tracked down
But this drag path was different
I saw them. They watched me. The Banditos
Legends, only stories of a group that lived out here

Shortly after being back inside the walls
my new people got me out
They needed me for something
They brought me in, taught me their colours
But the cycle was too strong
I was recaptured. Back inside

Now, let’s assume you’re exceptionally good at maths, not just their subject but more.

They give you the opportunity to speak at a prestigious conference, hoping you’ll talk about their subject, but you decide to give the lecture about your other findings.

People in that other subject notice you but their initial support is too weak, so you’re drawn back to your original niche-subject.

After a while, you get invitations to workshops and conferences of the other subject, but still your regular contributors remain in the niche and it’s too hard for you to make new connections in the other subject, so again you’re recaptured.

I guess word got around, I became known in Dema
The Bishops didn’t like this
but decided to use it to their advantage

They made me entertain the people
Lie to them
They made me perform for them

Okay, but more people in the niche become aware of your growing reputation outside.

The key figures decide to give you a bit more power, you’ll be an editor to one of their journals and you may be one of the organisers of the next annual meet-up of your topic.

They make it perfectly clear to you that all of this will be withdrawn if you’d pull another stunt at some outside conference. When you’re invited, you’ll have to deliver their story.

Then Nico was betrayed
And I escaped
Again
This time
I found myself at a new place, washed up on an island

And there, I was given a gift
thought to be extinct
I now had the same exact miraculous power
they wielded from their towers

Secretly, you’ve been working on the other subject, opening up new approaches to several open problems.

You’re setting up your own new topic in maths, lonely at first, but quite quickly people will join you because they see the potential.

You may not like it, but you’ve become the key figure in your own topic.

I am a citizen
I am an escapee
I am an exception
I am returning to Trench
I am Clancy

I don’t wish this on you, but perhaps this new status gives you a purpose of revenge.

You will overthrow the powers that be in your niche topic, and guide all their followers in a better direction. You’ve become a bishop yourself.

[End of this pitch of Dema-lore]

Clearly, this story is not limited to physics or mathematics. I guess it’s recognisable for more people working in academia, and even to everyone who has to survive in a toxic work-environment.

Now comes a tricky point for clikkies (the pilots’ fanbase): what is 21 pilots’ Dema?

Can it be the clique itself?

They’ve said over and over again that they change the lore according to input from the clique. Maybe this has become too much of a burden? In this new album ‘Clancy’ they may just play the songs they want to play.

The heck whether they fit into the lore, or whether they explain that lore, let alone that dammed Bourbaki/Weil-angle.

Until yesterday I would have been disappointed by this, but then I was completely blown away by the little ballad Tyler performed for the first time at their small event in London.

But hey Tyler, if you ever come across this post, and have a minute: please let me know in the comments who that guy is you photoshopped in the doorway of that picture of the 1938 Bourbaki meeting in Dieulefit? Thanks!

Previously in this series:

Published in math personal stories tBC