Count themselves lucky

    Mathematicians might think they have an image problem, but the public holds them in great esteem.

    Like people in many disciplines, mathematicians are prone to bouts of concern that they have an image problem. Only last month, some of them convened on the Greek island of Mykonos with a group of writers to consider how a better use of narrative could help them with their work — and with their public relations (see Dramatizing maths: What's the plot?).

    It is probably fair to say that many mathematicians feel themselves perceived as unable to conduct the simplest practical task, unfashionably attired, nerdy and isolated from the real world.

    A collection of the jokes that mathematicians tell each another (Not. Am. Math. Soc. 52, 24; 2005) reveals an element of self-mockery of their obsessive and pedantic natures. Who else would laugh at the suggestion that what you get by crossing an elephant with a banana is |elephant| * |banana| * sinθ?

    Additionally, as they are never shy to tell the rest of us, mathematicians receive only a tiny slice of the overall research funding. And although it clearly costs much less to prove a theorem than it does to clone a cow, their small grants are inevitably interpreted by mathematicians as a sure sign that their work is undervalued.

    These negative associations have been reinforced by a number of popular stories about great mathematicians. The American inventor of cybernetics theory, Norbert Wiener, for example, is frequently depicted as the archetypal absent-minded professor. It is said he once lost his way walking home from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He came across a small girl in the street and asked if she could give him directions. “Yes, daddy,” she replied, “I'll take you home.”

    “There seems to be an insatiable public appetite for tales of the almost supernatural intellectual powers of mathematics' more famous figures.”

    Kurt Gödel, whose incompleteness theorem sent shock waves through mathematics in the 1930s, was a noted misanthrope, who shunned human contact at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, preferring colleagues to communicate via pieces of paper stuffed through the crack beneath the door of his office.

    Despite — or, perhaps, because of — such behaviour, the history of mathematics is probably more colourful than that of any other scientific discipline. And there seems to be an insatiable public appetite for tales of the almost supernatural intellectual powers of its more famous figures.

    Srinivasa Ramanujan, for example, an Indian mathematician of towering ability in number theory who died at the age of only 32, first came to the attention of the eminent British mathematician G. H. Hardy by sending his notebooks to him while he worked as a clerk in Madras. Hardy correctly concluded that even if he couldn't follow all of the proofs, only a genius could have thought of the theorems they were seeking to address.

    Hardy invited him to Cambridge, but Ramanujan caught a cold that developed into a terminal case of tuberculosis. When Hardy visited his ailing protégé one day by taxi, he commented that the cab's number, 1729, was “rather dull”. On the contrary, Ramanujan insisted, it is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two different pairs of cubes.

    Earlier eras have produced equally poignant anecdotes. One thinks, for example, of Évariste Galois, the unruly French mathematician who made great strides in group theory. He frantically scribbled down his work for posterity on the eve of his fatal duel in 1832 at the age of just 20. Such stories have propelled books such as Simon Singh's on Fermat's last theorem to bestseller status.

    These tales are popular not just for their panache, but because they celebrate mathematicians as pure intellectuals who, unlike physicists, biologists or chemists, are untainted by applications of their work. For even though mathematics is eminently useful, its application barely features in its public reputation. Disciplines that are traditionally inclined to disdain pure theory — biology springs to mind — should take note of the success with which mathematics, this most theoretical of disciplines, has haplessly bungled its way into people's hearts.

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    Count themselves lucky. Nature 436, 603–604 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1038/436603b

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