mathematician’s mind

What are mathematicians really like? What are the distinctive personality traits or traits among them? Mathematicians are rarely the heroes of novels, so we have little to learn from literature. Mathematicians are featured in some films, but most give little information about the personalities of their subjects.

Broad statements about groups of people are risky but can also be funny and provide insight. At the risk of clichés, we can start with absolutism. The earliest record of professional absence belongs to the greatest mathematician of antiquity, Archimedes. Upon making an important discovery, he jumped out of his bath and fled the streets of Syracuse completely naked.

William Rowan Hamilton’s intense preoccupation with the quadrilaterals he discovered was obsessed. The historian of mathematics E.T. Bell wrote that, in the last 20 years of his life, Hamilton worked almost exclusively on quaternions. After his death, his office was found to be in great disarray. Bell wrote that “innumerable plates of food were found buried in mountain piles of papers”, reflecting the domestic difficulties in which Hamilton lived.

chronologically scattered

There are many stories about mathematicians being oblivious to their surroundings, missing lectures and appointments, or forgetting to eat their lunch. They have been known to drive to work, take the bus or train home, and wonder where the car went the next day. Are they really so chronologically scattered? Mathematician John Bowers of the University of Leeds claimed that he could refute this thesis but unfortunately, he falsified his proof. QED.

In general, mathematicians tend to be happily married, reasonably capable parents, and good citizens. They are not noted for orgasmic behavior, violence or excessive use of drugs

Mathematical research involves continuous and focused work. Asked how he discovered the law of universal gravitation, Newton reflected that he solved a problem by “thinking over it constantly”. The months or years of focused and intense work required to develop a proof can be exhausting. A somewhat disorganized mind and cynical behavior can be an unavoidable result. Such tension contributed most to the inventor of set theory and Georg Cantor’s mental breakdown of the hierarchy of the infinite.

malaise is another common feature; Glamor would not be a mathematician’s strong suit. Newton biographer Richard Westfall described how, when this great scientist missed lunch, he would arrive in the dining room without combing his hair, disheveled and heeled downstairs. Mathematicians’ conservative dress would be unimaginative and loose, with knitted jumpers, socks and sandals.

swindled with money

What about money? Mathematicians’ analytical skills can enable them to make fortunes; But, once lured by money, they usually lose interest in mathematics. Those who stay the course often have little interest in money. Grigory Perelman proved the Poincaré conjecture, a problem that has been outstanding for a century.

I have refused to accept a Fields Medal, the equivalent of a Nobel Prize, for this brilliant research, saying “I am not interested in money or fame”. Afterwards, I’ve turned down the $1 million Clay Millennium Prize.

In general, mathematicians tend to be happily married, reasonably capable parents, and good citizens. They are not noted for orgasmic behavior, violence or excessive use of drugs. Do they have any specific flaws? ET Bell, writing of the Irish mathematician Robert Murphy, said that he “went in the same destructive way as Hamilton”. What could Bell mean? He concluded: “I believe that alcohol, not sex, is the trap that mathematicians have to watch out for.” to discuss.

Peter Lynch is Emeritus Professor at the UCD School of Mathematics and Statistics, University College Dublin – he blogs here