These are Times that Try Mathematicians' Souls

by David Brooks

Back to Articles on the Public Understanding of Math

The time has come for a manifesto, so here goes: Math lovers of the world, unite - you have nothing to lose but your reputation!

Those are strong words, I know, but the situation calls for strong action. Those of us who spent our college years reveling in the Queen of Sciences have been silent long enough. We need to stop hiding our delight at a well-formed graph; our admiration for a clean, crisp proof, our realization that higher mathematics is one of the finest accomplishments of the human spirit.

It's time to stand on our desktops and shout to the world: "Say it out loud, I like math and I'm proud!"

All this was spurred, of course, by the Unabomber arrest.

Theodore Kaczynski is not only an alleged killer, but a major league weirdo whose sole positive traits are mathematical. He showed great promise - joining his high school math team, attending Harvard, teaching at Berkeley and publishing papers on boundary functions - before retreating to Montana to do whatever it is he did there.

Since so few mathematicians make the news, Kaczynski's saga has led to a public linking of doing high-level math and being a dangerous oddball.

Well, speaking as a former math team member, I've had enough. Just because I know what a non-Abelian group is doesn't make me a loony-in-waiting. So back off, you pompous English majors.

Actually, I shouldn't be surprised. Like any math major, I've listened to a lot of anti-science comments over the years. My favorite - if I can describe it that way - came a few years back, when a fellow editor saw that The Associated Press had sent out a photograph of some scruffy-looking fellow and commented offhand that, judging from his bizarre appearance, "He's either a scientist or a murderer."

What's the basis for this public alienation? It seems somehow linked to the way math is so removed from everyday life.

Just to explain what a non-Abelian group is for example would require piling abstraction on top of abstraction until you were moving in realms more suited to philosophy than addition. The conclusion of most people seems to be that anybody who moves in such an intellectual realm must be equally removed from life in other areas - social, moral, ethical.

This is where the error lies, because there's no connection between math thinking and life thinking. In fact, making such a connection is the underlying humor in virtually every mathematics joke I've ever heard, such as this one:

"A mathematician is captured by Martians who decide to test his problem-solving skills First they give him a pile of dry leaves and two sticks, and lower the temperature in his room. After considerable effort, he makes a fire by rubbing the two sticks together.

"Then they give him a pile of dry leaves and a burning torch. He promptly blows out the torch and breaks it in two over his knee, thereby reducing the problem to one that has already been solved."

This not-quite-a-knee-slapper depends on moving mathematical thinking (altering new problems so they resemble solved problems is standard operating procedure) into the real world. Mathematicians don't do this, so it's funny to say that they do.

Or maybe not so funny, if it leads you to ridicule math and those who like it.

So those of you who brag about not being able to balance your checkbook, stop nodding your head over the Kaczynski saga and saying, "I knew I was right to drop out of that Algebra for Humanities Majors class."

Participating in the long intellectual search for the patterns of the universe is one of the great joys of being human. It's a shame to let a possibly dangerous loner deprive you of it.

Posted with permission of The Telegraph, Nashua, NH; all other rights reserved.
David Brooks is science editor of The Telegraph. This column appears every week except the last Monday of each month. He can be contacted at 594-6482, or by e-mail at


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