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On the loneliness of mathematicians

  1. Apr 23, 2012 #1
    I'm not sure if this thread belongs on this forum or in general discussion, so if it gets moved I understand. I don't have a question rather just a general observation that I think people might enjoy discussing.

    Just about all academics have to deal with being relegated to obscurity. Every once in a while a very tiny portion get selected for a little bit of fame such as appearing on the Daily Show or being able to lecture to audiences of maybe a 1000. For instance I had to wait in line for two hours to hear Noam Chomsky speak and it turns out that they didn't have enough seats for him. Quite often the academics that manage to score it big with the public are not always the brightest in their field. Brian Greene seems to have hit it big because he's good-looking and Stephen Hawking because he's an inspiration to those whose bodies confront severe dysfunction and damage. This is not just a problem for scientific academics but this happens in all fields, history, psychology, literature.

    I want to assert however that this problem is most acute in the realm of mathematics. Since I'm a poet I cannot be accused of fallaciously thinking my field is the most special. I can think of no field that is more removed from the public's concern than math. Even a little while ago Jay Leno cracked a joke about how boring and difficult math is. Kids actually really like math and are natural mathematicians and it is not too outrageous a claim to assert that math is probably kids' favorite subject but the math that was worked out after about Descartes becomes too hard for the general public and people lose interest. Hollywood likes to glamorize the lives of certain intellectuals. There have been portrayals of Shakespeare, Alexander Graham Bell (whom I believe stole the idea of the telephone from Elisa Grey), and Indiana Jones is very loosely based on Alfred Russel Wallace, but the only portrayal of a mathematician has been one that was mad, John Nash.

    It didn't really hit home to me just how isolated, obscure and lonely mathematicians are until I learned that Andrew John Wiles spent seven years on a proof for Fermat's Last Theorem and that probably the only people who understand the proof are those that belong on the committee that verified that he solved it. Think of how striking that is. You spend seven years on a 100 page proof that only a handful of people understand.

    As a mathematician you look for patterns in numbers but there is no guarantee that these patterns will eventually appear in nature and be useful to physicists. Eugenio Calabi who is still alive for instance was able to triumphantly see his math come in handy to string theorists but I think that it is extremely rare that a mathematician will ever be able to see his work vindicated as useful to scientists.
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 23, 2012 #2


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    Hey bobsmith76.

    When I read your post I am reminded that our world is full of many people with many different personalities that are attracted to many different things and this makes our world quite an interesting place (for the better and the worse depending on your perspective).

    One should be aware that the kinds of things that people are drawn to are often not what a lot of mathematicians have.

    Consider the kind of outgoing, charismatic, funny, lively person that most people like to be around, see on their TV sets, in the cinema with their girlfriends, boyfriends, plain friends and family when they watch a movie or otherwise.

    Many mathematicians do not necessarily care about the human connection (although it is not far to say that all do and in doing so would not do any justice to characterizing mathematicians in general) and as a consequence they don't carry the kind of traits that would attract people that like and want to be around.

    Also the other thing is that, like you mentioned, math leaves a bad taste in people's mouths either from their high school experience or otherwise and this certainly doesn't help. When you add all the stereotypes and so on, then this just gets compounded but even then I'm sure many of the dorky math teachers haven't been our greatest salesman.

    Also most people don't realize what math really is. Most people think its all got to do with +,-,*,/ and fractions/percentages/triangles/something to do with that greek guy pythagoras and pi. They wouldn't think that principles for not getting screwed over has anything to do with math. They wouldn't think that all the technology that allows them to google for their favourite band, use their iPod, or talk on their mobile phone has anything to do with math. They think of math as triangles, pi, fractions and some dorky teacher who can't find his way out of a paper bag if it meant asking the lunch lady for directions to the mall.

    The other thing is that mathematics takes a lot of time to learn it properly and we live in a society of the quick fix: whether its drugs, easy credit, getting rich quick through winning a Nigerian lottery or inheriting a huge Russian fortune: it's all about the quick fix.

    Because of this mentality, people want everything right now and math requires a bit of patience which is not on the menu. So when you tell people that it takes maybe 10 years to understand math and you won't even understand it all in your lifetime, then people turn away.

    This can help you understand why people don't want to get into the hard science, engineering, technology subjects and so on because it takes a lot of energy, time, and attention to really excel and it's a lot easier to do something else that is a 'quicker fix' than spending 60+ hours, weekends, and maybe even public holidays trying to grasp.

    So when you think of the people willing to go through this from all walks of life to the final destination, it ends up being very lonely because most people don't want to take that leap of faith to spend the majority of their life doing something which takes a long time to learn, is hard, and is also very uncertain in terms of if you succeed, what you will find and so on not to mention the fact that most people by the time they are 18 think math is just about looking up a formula, punching numbers into a calculator and writing the answer down in a little box where they, rightly so, get bored out of their mind and think that mathematicians are uncreative, socially inept robots who memorize formulas all day and find the area of right angled triangles in their spare time.
  4. Apr 23, 2012 #3

    I'll skip over some inaccuracities here and there in your post and only will tell you this: for many of us mathematicians, the biggest and most exquisite of all pleasures is the very act of dealing with mathematics, and we couldn't care less about most other things, though some money and recognition are almost always (see Grigoryi Perelman for a striking counterexample) welcome and I, personally, am extremely fond of my family, so "being alone" must surely mean something else for you than it does for me.

  5. Apr 23, 2012 #4

    Stephen Tashi

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    Almost all the people in any occupation are "relegated to obscurity". Being relegated to obscurity is part of ordinary life. People who feel lonley because they are relegated to obscurity have an exaggerated view of the their own importance. (People who are distressed about "the profession" being relegated to obscurity may have the same exaggerated view, diluted by some nominal altruism.)

    If you want to talk about salaries instead of fame, that is substantive issue. However, I suspect it can't be discussed in this section of the forum since the topic of salaries of various processions usually gets into political things.
  6. Apr 23, 2012 #5
    Fame is inextricably tied to the size of the audience for a given endeavor, yes.
  7. Apr 23, 2012 #6
    * Hobin writes a mental note: don't try to date the hot mathematicians unless wearing a costume that makes me look like Euler's formula.
  8. Apr 24, 2012 #7
    I think that about sums it up.

    I'm certainly not a mathmetician. (If you browse through my previous posts, you'll find me asking a lot of rather remedial questions about Algebra II.)

    But this quote about Jay Leno really struck me. I think there are two fundamental things causing a great part of this problem. The first being the media. You are right. Not all kids think that math is a drag. But unfortunately, somewhere along the line math got a bad rep as a "dorky" pursuit, and many kids--especially teenagers looking to fit in--don't want to be associated with that. I think that the media is the major proponent of this, but at this point it has taken on its own momentum and become more of a society view. Thus creating a vicious cycle.

    As a side note, I wonder if this is something seen more in the western hemisphere? ... Namely, America. I'm not positive or anything, but it seems to me that math isn't viewed with such disdain in the rest of the world as it is there. After all, the U.S. is doing pretty badly in the math subjects when compared against other countries. And a big factor of that, I know, is time. It's like chiro said that most people don't want to spend the time on learning it or tinkering with it or figuring out why what they got wrong is wrong.

    I have to disagree about the statement that people aren't wanting to spend time on math simply because it takes a lot of time, though. After all, I know people that can recite perfectly the "history" of all these celebrities and reality TV stars. And, there are athletes out there that have admitted to not having any talent in their chosen sport, just a lot of perseverance. So somewhere along the line, people thought that these were valid things to learn--worth it personally--and thus invested the time in it.

    Conclusively, I think that people don't want to spend a lot of time on math because of the societal view that I already expressed. But also, as chiro already pointed out, most people think that math is only calculating the area of triangles and stuff. That too is erroneous and could use some clarification. Most teachers, that I've run across, really can't explain what you use the different types of math for; they can't explain careers that involve math; etc. So kids walk away with the misconception that, "I'll never use this anyways." (In fact, I recently saw that as a trending topic on Twitter.) But maybe if the teachers actually retorted back there wouldn't be as much of that.

    For instance, I always thought that proofs in Geometry were really similar to how a doctor comes to a conclusion about what disease a patient has or how a lawyer proves their client innocent or the defendent guilty. If teachers could explain more of this stuff (and hopefully with better examples than my own), then I really think that would go along way in solving some of these false conclusions too.

    So to summarize, it would be more helpful if the general public banished the stereotype of math as useless or boring, and if instead, they were able to show how it is useful and can be creative (many teachers also often go only off of the answers in the back of their book--which is unfortunate because with a lot of math there is more than one right way to get to the answer.) The media wields a lot of power when it comes to collective opinion too, so it'd be nice if they weren't so biased one way all the time. Of course, some people don't like math; but it isn't so for EVERYONE.

    Well, that's my two cents. I certainly hope that you (bobsmith76) aren't feeling the loneliness yourself. But if you are, judging by your post count, I'm sure you've already discoverd PF seems a pretty great place to meet people interested in many different fields in science from my measly Algebra II all the way up to math that literally looks like another language (and yes, technically it is, but you get my point).
  9. Apr 24, 2012 #8
    These are somewhat impractical examples. Many people can recite all these things because seeing such things daily on tv is the default, and doesn't require a time *investment*. Math, on the other hand, does. Also, I find it hard to believe that an athlete in sport X has no talent for X *at all*. Of course, I agree that perseverance is a very important - if not THE most important - factor. But talent has its place, too, and I suspect the same goes for math.
  10. Apr 24, 2012 #9


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    This thread is pointless. Math doesn't exist just for physics.
    Last edited: Apr 26, 2012
  11. Apr 25, 2012 #10
    I see some clarification is in order. For starters, I wasn't talking about the standard pop culture trivia that everyone who occasionally watches the news, overhears talk at the watercooler, etc. knows. I was actually referencing the people that can recite every reality TV plot, celebrities' life histories, and what they wore to the Grammy's 1998, etc. Even if to some that is considered a pointless pursuit, someone out there has deemed it important to them and is therefore spending the time and effort on it.

    As for the sports, I should say "exceptionally below average" instead of the "any" that I used. That is an overgeneralization, I agree. But my point still stands, that some people out there might not have talent in something and still decide to work hard on it and eventually become successful. Math isn't the only endeavor that requires time.

    The best summary I could give is that an hour is still an hour whether spent on math, studying the latest gossip magazines, or working on your jump shot.

    Both of those examples were, however, subpoints to my main points. I think bobsmith76 has a valid opinion, and I was only giving my agreeable perspective on it.
  12. Apr 25, 2012 #11
    Lonliness has nothing to do with how famous you are. Take Paul Erdős, he is pretty unknown to the masses and yet he was also a very great mathematician but was he lonely? No! He collaborated with a LOT of people, he traveled about meeting other mathematicians to do so. Doesn't seem too lonely to me :biggrin:
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 26, 2012
  13. Apr 25, 2012 #12
    I am experienced for mathematicians' responsibility debates. My teacher missed my school records. :biggrin:
  14. Apr 27, 2012 #13
    I just want to point out that one time when some student said the proverbial when are we going to use this stuff in precalculus the teacher's response was: "really," meaning that he agreed that it was pointless. I now know it's essential for QM and any other higher physics.
  15. Apr 28, 2012 #14
    It's not just math though. As Bertrand Russell wrote:

    "Most people would rather die then think and most people do."

    the advantages most intellectuals have is that they are in a university environment and consequently surrounded by like minded people. If people go into industry they will become struck by the complete lack of caring most people have about intellectual things.

    Well, this is disheartening, I believe that the growth and the availability of information online and the ability to communicate with like minded people though the internet will slowly change things. Ideas slowly work their way down from academia to the general public. The internet will only speed up this process.

    If intellectual things are important to an individual then there are two important things that they should do:

    1) Take advantage of university to the fullest extent possible.
    Well social things are important, there will not be again the same opportunity to learn as there is in university.

    2) Try to surround yourself by people who support your passions. After school maybe form or try to find a club which has similar interests.

    The hardest thing will be that unless your interests are making you money everyone is going to think you are wasting your time. It takes a lot of strength to seek out ones own path.
  16. Apr 28, 2012 #15
    This is something I've wondered about. It's not just mathematicians, but generally any academic. Two people that came to mind was Dennis Ritchie and Steve Jobs. If you're asking now "who the hell is Dennis Ritchie" - this pretty much illustrates the point of this thread.

    To keep it short, Dennis Ritchie was the co-creator of the C programming language. To my mind he is probably the Isaac Newton of the 20th century because of the influence and how our lives have forever changed because of his and (of course the other co-creators) work into computing science. He died shortly after Steve Jobs and there was nothing in the news. I was rather disappointed. This is not that Steve Jobs wasn't important or did nothing, but in comparison Steve Jobs really hasn't had the same kind of impact although he's better known.

    I think there's two points to be gotten out of this:

    1) Never equate popularity with relative importance - note I said relative.
    2) Just because you're "obscure" in the general sense of the word, it doesn't mean you're not important. People in academia do it for the passion and search for knowledge, there's a lot to be gained especially if you're not in the limelight or having to speak in front of thousands.
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