Oxford University has a new mathematics building. It’s very nice, looks like it would be a good place to work. But I found it fascinating to learn that the building is split in half, one part for teaching, one for research, with undergraduates basically forbidden to enter the research part. It’s a bit of a nuisance for the faculty, who need to give tutorials, and would sometimes find it convenient to do it in their Maths Institute office rather than in their college. Why is it? The story — I can’t vouch for its truth, but I’ve heard this from several people — is that it is for tax reasons. Apparently, research is considered a charitable activity, while teaching is… I don’t know, commercial activity? By splitting the building this way, they were spared paying VAT (close to 20%) on the construction.
This suggests an updated version of an old Jewish joke:
(Student tries to enter the research side of the Maths Institute Building.)
Receptionist: Where do you think you’re going? You’re not allowed in there.
Student: I’m looking for my brother. He’s a graduate student here.
Receptionist: Why don’t you ring him?
Student: He’s probably in one of the interaction zones, which have been designed to facilitate informal discussion outside the framework of traditional office spaces.
Receptionist: You could ring his mobile.
Student: As you are probably aware, the lovely metal cladding on the interior walls has exactly the right dimensions to block all mobile telephone and computer wireless radio signals. (True, apparently.) Please, I just need to go in for two minutes.
Receptionist: Well, okay. But don’t let me catch you learning in there!