January 10, 1992|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Evening Sun Staff

IT'S SOMETIMES said that mathematicians live on a hyperbolic plane -- deep-rooted in their work, sheltered from the world and current events, speaking in different tongues -- all rendering them, well, nerds.

Dweebs. Squares. Zonkoids.

It does take a special sense of humor to understand this joke: "What do you get when you cross a sheep and a goat?" Answer: a sheep-goat sine theta. Mathematicians who work with the cross-product of vectors think that's a scream.

Mathematicians are as much maligned as blonds when it comes to stereotypes. "A lot of people who do mathematics don't want lots of people to know what they do because they're going to be pegged as nerds," said Mike Slack, a 30-year-old math professor at the University of Virginia.

People label mathematicians as square pegs because of fear and resentment, says Haig Bohigian, a math professor at City University of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

"For most people, mathematics is their worse subject," said Bohigian. So when they meet somebody who's good at it, they think that person's weird, he says.

"Because so many people do poorly in math, people put us in a certain category of being strange," said Herb Silverman, a math professor at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. "When you are in math, it's hard to think of yourself as nerds. But it's easy to understand how people can. A lot of us are thought to be shy and don't like people."

Mathematicians readily admit that sometimes they soak themselves in their work and come up for air only once in a while. It's the nature of the profession. "You have to concentrate on a math problem, and sometimes you ignore the outside world," said Denise Sakai, a Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "You're sloppy, don't dress well, don't eat well, don't read the newspaper, don't watch TV. And you can't talk about anything else but math."

Mathematicians, though, take their labels in stride. In fact, some are proud to wear the nerd label, a distinction of their intelligence and devotion to the field. "Some mathematicians are proud of being nerds," said Silverman, who's been teaching math for 23 years. "They think they're more superior, more logical than the rest."