A Mathematician’s Apology – Quotes

G. H. Hardy - A mathematicians apology

Time and again, I read books, especially autobiographies, to read about great men. Only once in a while, do I get mesmerized with an amazing personality. And when I find one, I find all the books and articles by them and try to absorb as much about them as possible.

There was the Muhammad Ali phase, then Lance Armstrong, Malcolm X, Feynman, Gandhi, Watson (of DNA fame) and the last amazing person was Ramanujan. And now I’ve found G. H. Hardy.

I finally got my hands on A Mathematician’s Apology, and Genya and me read it together, aloud to each other. It’s a short book, almost a semi-long essay, but it’s beautifully written.

I would recommend reading Kanigel’s, Man who knew Infinity first, followed by Music of the Primes by Marcus Sautoy, and then A Mathematician’s Apology, to really enjoy this short book.

Sharing some nice quotes from the book..

A mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns…The mathematician’s patterns, like the painter’s or the poet’s, must be beautiful.

It is not worth an intelligent man’s time to be in the majority. By definition, there are already enough people to do that.

What we do may be small, but it has a certain character of permanence; and to have produced anything of the slightest permanent interest, whether it be a copy of verses or a geometrical theorem, is to have done something utterly beyond the powers of the vast majority of men.

There is no scorn more profound, or on the whole more justifiable, than that of the men who make for the men who explain. Exposition, criticism, appreciation, is work for second-rate minds.

If intellectual curiosity, professional pride, and ambition are the dominant incentives to research, then assuredly no one has a fairer chance of gratifying them than a mathematician. His subject is the most curious of all – there is none in which truth plays such odd pranks. It has the most elaborate and the most fascinating technique, and gives unrivaled openings for the display of sheer professional skill. Finally, as history proves abundantly, mathematical achievement, whatever its intrinsic worth, is the most enduring of all.

Oriental mathematics may be an interesting curiosity, but Greek mathematics is the real thing. The Greeks first spoke a language which modern mathematicians can understand… So Greek mathematics is ‘permanent’, more permanent even than Greek literature. Archimedes will be remembered when Aeschylus is forgotten, because languages die and mathematical ideas do not. ‘Immortality’ may be a silly word, but probably a mathematician has the best chance of whatever it may mean.

What is the proper justification of a mathematician’s life? My answers will be, for the most part, such as are expected from a mathematician: I think that it is worthwhile, that there is ample justification. But I should say at once that my defense of mathematics will be a defense of myself, and that my apology is bound to be to some extent egotistical. I should not think it worth while to apologize for my subject if I regarded myself as one of its failures. Some egotism of this sort is inevitable, and I do not feel that it really needs justification. Good work is no done by “humble” men. It is one of the first duties of a professor, for example, in any subject, to exaggerate a little both the importance of his subject and his own importance in it. A man who is always asking “Is what I do worth while?” and “Am I the right person to do it?” will always be ineffective himself and a discouragement to others. He must shut his eyes a little and think a little more of his subject and himself than they deserve. This is not too difficult: it is harder not to make his subject and himself ridiculous by shutting his eyes too tightly.”

I had better say something here about this question of age, since it is particularly important for mathematicians. No mathematician should ever allow himself to forget that mathematics, more than any other art or science, is a young man’s game. To take a simple illustration at a comparatively humble level, the average age of election to the Royal Society is lowest in mathematics. We can naturally find much more striking illustrations. We may consider, for example, the career of a man who was certainly one of the world’s three greatest mathematicians. Newton gave up mathematics at fifty, and had lost his enthusiasm long before; he had recognized no doubt by the time he was forty that his greatest creative days were over. His greatest idea of all, fluxions and the law of gravitation, came to him about 1666 , when he was twentyfour—’in those days I was in the prime of my age for invention, and minded mathematics and philosophy more than at any time since’. He made big discoveries until he was nearly forty (the ‘elliptic orbit’ at thirty-seven), but after that he did little but polish and perfect.

Galois died at twenty-one, Abel at twenty-seven, Ramanujan at thirty-three, Riemann at forty. There have been men who have done great work a good deal later; Gauss’s great memoir on differential geometry was published when he was fifty (though he had had the fundamental ideas ten years before). I do not know an instance of a major mathematical advance initiated by a man past fifty. If a man of mature age loses interest in and abandons mathematics, the loss is not likely to be very serious either for mathematics or for himself.

Most people have some appreciation of mathematics, just as most people can enjoy a pleasant tune; and there are probably more people really interested in mathematics than in music. Appearances suggest the contrary, but there are easy explanations. Music can be used to stimulate mass emotion, while mathematics cannot; and musical incapacity is recognized (no doubt rightly) as mildly discreditable, whereas most people are so frightened of the name of mathematics that they are ready, quite unaffectedly, to exaggerate their own mathematical stupidity

The mathematician’s patterns, like the painter’s or the poet’s must be beautiful; the ideas, like the colours or the words must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in this world for ugly mathematics.

Reductio ad absurdum, which Euclid loved so much, is one of a mathematician’s finest weapons. It is a far finer gambit than any chess play: a chess player may offer the sacrifice of a pawn or even a piece, but a mathematician offers the game.

 

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  • Ludwig

    Super stuff. This is one of my favourite books too. BTW, you should get your hands on “The Existential Pleasures of Engineering” by Samuel Florman ASAP. I think it’s out of print, but available second hand on Amazon etc. Tiny book, really thought provoking, for us types.

    Off to Bombay for the half tomorrow as usual. Will miss your shirtless whizzing by at the start (for you)/end (for me) of Sea Link!

    Adding to your quote stash:

    I have never done anything useful. No discovery of mine has made or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or for ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world. Judged by all practical standards, the value of my mathematical life is nil. And outside mathematics it is trivial anyhow. The case for my life then, or for anyone else who has been a mathematician in the same sense that I have been one is this: That I have added something to knowledge and helped others to add more, and that these somethings have a value that differ in degree only and not in kind from that of the creations of the great mathematicians or any of the other artists, great or small who’ve left some kind of memorial behind them.

    I still say to myself when I am depressed and and find myself forced to listen to pompous and tiresome people “Well, I have done one thing you could never have done, and that is to have collaborated with Littlewood and Ramanujan on something like equal terms.”

    • http://bhamla.com Saad Bhamla

      @0c053cd48f2b43dc6745cd21295acce0:disqus: Ah, I’ll do that. Thanks for reco.
      Good luck at the race – If you see MS, say Hi :)

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