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Academic questioned by American Airlines officials for doing math on plane

Technically Incorrect: An Ivy League expert in search theory says the math he was writing may have been mistaken by a passenger for some sort of code, possibly terroristic. Oh, and he has dark skin.

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.

The face of an academic. Nothing more.

Screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

What does math look like?

Would you be able to tell it apart from, say, things that terrorists write while on planes?

The question emerges after an Ivy League academic was questioned by American Airlines staff when a flight returned to the gate at Philadelphia airport Thursday, ostensibly because a passenger felt ill.

As The Washington Post reports, Guido Menzio was sitting on flight 3950 scribbling away, waiting for it to take off.

He told the Post that the female passenger next to him tried a little small talk. He didn't show great interest in this.

The passenger told a member of the cabin crew she suddenly felt ill. After some time, she apparently said she was now OK to fly. Still the plane returned to the gate.

There, says Menzio, he was met by a security agent who explained that he was under suspicion of being a terrorist.

It seems the passenger had been concerned about his writings -- though not just his writings, one suspects.

Guido Menzio is associate professor in the department of Economics at the University of Pennsylvania. One of his specialties is search theory. He was on his way to give a talk in Quebec.

Here he was suddenly having his mathematical intentions searched.

Oh, and he has slightly darker skin. But, as his name suggests, he's Italian -- not, well, whatever other nationality bad people are supposed to be.

He says he was treated with respect at all times and allowed back on the plane, but the female passenger never reappeared.

American Airlines told me that Menzio had been met back at the gate first by a customer service manager and then by a corporate security officer. Sometimes, these are American Airlines employees, but sometimes they are contractors.

"A passenger on AE3950, operated by Air Wisconsin, expressed concerns with another customer's behavior," an American Airlines spokesman told me. "After reviewing the situation, the captain determined the flight should continue. We apologize to our customers for the delay."

Menzio told the Post that the captain seemed embarrassed, while Menzio himself was bemused. Had they thought he was writing, say Arabic? And what if he had been?

Menzio didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

American Airlines didn't characterize Menzio being questioned as an interrogation -- as was suggested by the Post's headline. Instead, the standard company procedure is, whenever one passenger complains about another, to either reseat one of the passengers or investigate further.

Menzio told the Post he showed the American Airlines officials his calculations. They were about menu pricing.

He added, however, that he sensed in this incident an expression of our current times.

"What might prevent an epidemic of paranoia?" he asked the Post. "It is hard not to recognize in this incident the ethos of [Donald] Trump's voting base."

Some might wonder whether terrorists really would sit on planes writing potentially suspicious things in plain view.

Some might also wonder whether a passenger might fail to realize the difference between some sort of menacing writing (what does that look like?) and, say, a differential equation.

Too many people, however, seem scared of "the other," whatever that means to them. Too many people believe in "better safe than sorry" to a degree that "safe" means "to be with people only like me."

It seems that math may be "the other." Which is strange, given how much math is now central to everything we do and every part of the technology we inhabit.

How on Earth might some people react if they saw computer code?