Mathematicians: often a bit messed up

In my presentation last week about how I got into studying science, I claimed that I got into maths because I wanted to pick up chicks. If you were one of my classmates who attended the talk, I must apologise: that was a complete lie. It did, however, make a good set-up for a number of jokes about how mathematicians are perceived by wider society. One of the anonymous feedback sheets from my classmates asked what I would have said if I’d had more time, so in this post I’m going to explore these ideas in a bit more detail—and without the sex jokes. (If that was you and you’re reading this, do leave me a comment!)

Often, when I tell people what I study, they recoil a bit. I get the idea that people are a bit confused by somebody who has willingly chosen to devote his life to a subject which they weren’t good at and didn’t enjoy at school. But there might be some good reasons for the prejudice: many brilliant mathematicians were seriously messed up people, or lived lives which were unconventional to say the least.

Pythagoras, the ancient Greek mathematician who most of you will be familiar with from your school years from his work on triangles, was also the leader of a rather peculiar cult. One of his followers discovered the existence of irrational numbers: the square root of two cannot be represented as a fraction. This made Pythagoras so furious that, according to stories, he murdered the person who discovered it, and made the other members of his cult swear keep this fact a secret.

Évariste Galois was a French mathematician from the early 19th century. As well as being a brilliant mathematician, he was also a political revolutionary, opposing the monarchist aristocracy. He died in a pistol duel shortly before his 21st birthday. The story that I’d heard in the past was that the duel was over a woman—another man’s girlfriend—who Galois had been, er, involved with; the Wikipedia article suggests that this isn’t known for certain. Knowing that he was unlikely to survive the duel, Galois spent his final hours alive frantically writing out the mathematical developments he’d been working on in a letter to another French mathematician. His work solved a long-standing mathematical problem—proving that there is no way to find the exact roots of a quintic or higher-order polynomial—and ended being the foundation of group theory, which forms the basis to modern abstract algebra.

Georg Cantor got a mention in one of my previous posts. He was the first mathematician to give us a consistent understanding of the concept of infinity, and prove that there were differently sized infinities. He also suffered from depression and spent much of his later life in and out of mental institutions.

In the early twentieth century, Kurt Gödel proved that any formal mathematical system was incomplete: there are theorems which are true but which cannot be proved within the system. This may sound like an obscure piece of trivia, but at the time it was a staggering result which showed that decades of work in trying to completely formalise mathematics had been a complete waste of time. After publishing this result, Gödel became a paranoid delusional, convinced that people were trying to poison him. He eventually ended up in a mental institution.

The British mathematician Alan Turing was instrumental in cracking German ciphers during the Second World War, and later provided much of the basis to theoretical computer science—before general-purpose computers existed. He was also gay, which was illegal in Britain at the time. After the war ended, he was convicted, castrated and committed suicide shortly afterwards.

John Nash was the mathematician who invented game theory in the mid twentieth century, eventually earning him a Nobel Prize in Economics. As anyone who has watched the film A Beautiful Mind would know, he was also a schizophrenic.

Paul Erdos was a Hungarian mathematician who spent most of his life essentially homeless, living out of a suitcase and travelling between university mathematics departments around the world, collaborating with the academics there. He published more papers than any other mathematician in history, almost all of which were co-authored with other mathematicians. Later in his life, he also became dependent on amphetamines, although he continued working on mathematics until his death at age 83. The drug addiction was a source of shame and he tried unsuccessfully to keep the fact out of his biographies. Because of his extensive co-authored publications, the concept of the Erdos Number was introduced to measure the collaboration distance between other mathematicians and Erdos. Erdos himself has number 0; his direct co-authors get number 1; people who have co-authored papers with Erdos’s co-authors get number 2; and so on.

Need I go on? I know a lot of artists have difficult lives, but I’m not aware of so many successful scientists in other fields who have had such tragic lives. Are mathematicians particularly weird compared to other scientists, or am I just more aware of the weird mathematicians because I am one?


2 Responses to “Mathematicians: often a bit messed up”

  1. Cameron P says:

    Cheers Rob. Yeah, the reality of modern academia is a bit dull in comparison, albeit much less dangerous.

  2. rnovacco says:

    Great article, “died in a pistol duel” – they certainly don’t make them like they used to!