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Mathematicians And Cool


I met a mathematician a few weeks ago, and he spoke to me for a long time about the metaphysical nature of complex numbers, about how they are mysterious objects that
are but fronts for all the profound secrets they hide within them. If all these secrets were to be unlocked, you could (among other things) cure the world of all ills.

He looked like the average mathematician type to me, and using the Beautiful Mind as my second data point, I did some regression analysis to arrive at the following conclusions:

Mathematicians are eccentric. Most of them seem to exhibit varying degrees of weirdness, and all of them are delusional.

I try to research my posts thoroughly, so I painstakingly scoured the internets, and it seems to me that the world at large agrees with my conclusions. I also conducted an informal survey and all three respondents agreed with me wholeheartedly. One of them was an engineer, and he told me that mathematicians were the only people he could call geeks, and still sleep well at night.

Now, the mathematicians seem to have gotten wind of their unpopularity, which they are blaming on a vast liberal arts conspiracy. In an startling exhibition of ignorance of the theory of cause and effect, they are convinced that jokes such as this one

“How do you define an extrovert mathematician? Someone who looks at your shoes when he's talking to you.”

have caused their unpopularity.

They have concluded that the only way to burnish their image is to sup with the devil, so they are organizing joint conferences with writers to mollify the artsy types, and convince them that physicists are worse.

If you want evidence of the problem that confronts them, look no further than today's newspapers. Millions of people now enjoy Sudoku puzzles. Forget the pseudo-Japanese baloney: sudoku grids are a version of the Latin Square created by the great Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler in the late 18th century. Yet these legions of amateur problem-solvers tackle puzzles accompanied by the absurd assertion that “no maths is involved”. In parts of popular culture, mathematics has become not so much the love that dare not speak its name as the love that doesn't even know its name.

While there were some things that didn't go according to plan,

[…] real mathematicians have mixed feelings about mass-market yarns that present their domain as the stamping-ground of eccentrics, or even lunatics. But, for the most part, they applaud the endeavour to dramatise the human struggle of mathematical reasoning. Only one (absent) literary figure really fell foul of the Mykonos mob: the American writer David Foster Wallace, who in Everything and More wrote not a novel but a purported history of the mathematics of infinity. The computer-science guru Martin Davis counted “86 really egregious errors” in Wallace's book. “Are we so hard up for approval from the humanities that we have to accept this?” he thundered.

overall I think the conference was a success – there will be a comic book in 2007 about the development of 20th century maths. If nothing, that'll win over the engineers.

Through the Independent Online Edition.

PS: The title of this post is unique. It is the first time Mathematicians and Cool have appeared in the same sentence.