The lighter side of mathematics

Review of Steven G. Krantz's Mathematical Apocrypha Redux

Mathematicians perform their labours in an abstract space. However, when they do return to planet earth for rest, recuperation and, more often than not, to grab a cup of coffee, their encounters with fellow homo sapiens (colleagues, students, friends and family, and, last but by no means the least, officialdom) are wholly unpredictable and often funny. Mathematical Apocrypha Redux, by Steven Krantz, tells how.

Steven Krantz, a well-known mathematician and author of an earlier volume, Mathematical Apocrypha, is from the University of Washington, St. Louis, U.S. The book is in anecdotal form, with each anecdote running from a few lines to a page at the most. Brevity may be the soul of wit but that alone, perhaps, would not suffice to hold a good story together, let alone a whole book of them — a good tale lies in the telling. In reality, one suspects that each story has been written with considerable care, based on some non-trivial research, and then honed to perfection over a period of time. They have the quality of a collection of pictures in prose. The result is a compelling read — but perhaps only for mathematicians. Many of the stories relate what happens when mathematical genius alights on terra firma.... For non-mathematicians, the strange and unconventional ways of mathematicians, related in some of the stories (see p.96-97, but you can take your pick) may be quite incomprehensible. A degree of social alienation is perhaps the price mathematicians pay for our esoteric endeavours.

It is not uncommon in academia to identify knowledge with the skill and virtuosity of its most successful practitioners, a practice that effectively masks their personal attributes. In the forest of mathematical research, it is easy to miss the trees. The book provides that missing dimension that brings to life and colour the personalities of some of our most famous and best-known mathematicians. The maximum number of stories relate to Paul Erdos, with Nobert Wiener and von Neumann tying for the second place. For Indian readers there is Srinivasa Ramanujan (p.254), Raghavan Narasimhan (p.133), P.R. Masani (p.134), the ‘Tata Institute' (p.92), and the ‘Statistical Institute' (p.227) based in Kolkata. The book is not only about famous personalities. The author has spread his net far and wide — the result is a 275-page panoramic, ground-eye view of mathematicians at work and out of it. It brings out the breadth and depth of mathematical research in the Anglo-Saxon-European world, peopled as it is by a diverse array of nationalities.

The book, published by the Mathematical Association of America, is a celebration of a system of creating knowledge — a world-class system of research — that drives the search for knowledge in its own country and influences that search in much of the rest of the world.

A minor quibble relates to the chapter headings — they did not seem to quite connect with the contents. Many of the stories are set in the academic institutions of the U.S. Some of the stories that invoke ‘local colour' may leave us nonplussed (example ‘Beavis and Butthead,' p. 67).

But into the mouth of this particular gift horse, we shall no further look! And whichever part of the world you may be doing your mathematics in, this is a delightful book, whose stories, we are sure, will be told and retold in meetings around the world, when the day's work is done, and mathematicians gather around the food and drinks, and remember the legends of their fields.

(B. Rajeev is with the Indian Statistical Institute in Bangalore)

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2020 1:44:23 AM |

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