Manic, Maybe, or Just a Mathematician

            Mathematicians might be extremely critical, obsessive, analytical, and somewhat strange people because of math. The mathematicians (I know of) in history books were either strange or had some very peculiar idiosyncrasies. Coming to touch a vast picture of the universe through mathematics may have changed who they were in a fundamental way that could not be undone, forever banishing them to strangeness.

Mathematicians’ uniqueness permeates history, so much that the average person is familiar with the reclusive/temperamental nature of Isaac Newton. I think that most of the world doesn’t know the story of Archimedes who died for a proof he was working on in the sand (Seife 52). This example of Archimedes was abnormal because most people wouldn’t be willing to have died for knowledge.

Some more lesser-known examples are Johannes Kepler and how he believed in the cult ideals of Pythagoras. Kepler believed in the sacredness of the ratios found in the world so much that it inhibited his mathematics in the area of orbital ellipses for a time (Maor 52). Hypatia believed that geometry had mythical meaning and was considered a cultist during her time (44 Derbyshire). She ended up being killed by an angry Christian mob for her abnormal beliefs (45 Derbyshire). Sophie Germain, being the awesome mathematician of all time, studied mathematics even when she was in pain and dying from breast cancer (Wikipedia). One last example was Mary Fairfax Somerville, who enjoyed mathematics so much that she continued to study even though her sister died and her parents forbade her from studying math (Wikipedia).

Our textbook contains many interesting mathematicians as well. Georg Cantor fathered set theory as the foundation for numbers and investigator of infinity, and had multiple psychological meltdowns during his life (75). Carl Friedrich Gauss was brutally honest and mentally crushed most of the people around him with his words. A simple example of this was János Bolyai (Laubenbacher and Pengelley 15). János Bolyai sent a message to Gauss telling him of his discovery of a non-Euclidean geometry and Gauss replied that he had already discovered this, which crushed Bolyai (Wikipedia). Gauss solved an extremely difficult summation problem when he was only ten years old, shocking the hell out of the people who knew him (Kaplan and Kaplan 31). Bernhard Bolzano defied the status quo to speak his mind to the point that he was banished from teaching or publishing his work in science and mathematics (Laubenbacher and Pengelley 70).

Pop culture doesn’t seem like a place where one would encounter mathematics, but movies have been made showcasing the quirky personalities of mathematicians. Probably the most popular in America are “A Beautiful Mind” and “Good Will Hunting.” John Nash is the mathematician that “A Beautiful Mind” was based on and he was a schizophrenic (Wikipedia).

I can tell when someone has seen the movie “A Beautiful Mind” by observing the other person writing on a window. It is very likely that they have done this to honor and respect the man or they just wanted others to perceive them as being smart. According to Nash in an interview in the documentary “John Nash: Documentary on the Beautiful and Insane Mind of John Nash,” he did this one time because he ran out of room on his whiteboard for an equation. A logical move to save paper/money by Nash has since then caused a lot of illogical, unnecessarily dirtied windows. Who would’ve known that logical thinking could lead to so much illogical behavior.… This also showed that what may seem strange to an outside viewer may be the completely logical move under the given circumstance for the party involved with the outcome.

Paul Erdős at a student seminar in Budapest (Fall 1992). Image: Topsy Kretts, via Wikimedia Commons.

The movie “N is a Number” is another movie based on a very unique mathematician, specifically Paul Erdos—a drug addict. Erdos used amphetamines as a strategy to improve his productivity in exploring mathematics, and his strategy worked (Wikipedia). There are many more movies with equally weird brilliant people with a propensity towards mathematics.

Not all mathematicians have been strange, but most have (opinion). It is also important to realize that there have been many mathematicians or pseudo mathematicians in history. So, the probability of having some peculiar folk is highly likely. When one has compared the history of other disciplines to mathematics—from my own biased sampling—one will find that there tends to be a greater reported quantity of strangeness amongst numberphiles. It is also important to point out that even though math minded people may act bizarre in some aspects, overall in the rote events of life, they tend to have made wiser and more logical choices than the average person (this is purely my opinion). We could also count our Professor Dr. Evelyn Lamb as another living example of a mathematician’s uniqueness.

This blog was not meant to propagate the idea that one must be born with an aptitude for mathematics. This blog also doesn’t intend to further the erroneous belief that one must have the right brain to be a mathematician, or that a hard-worker and dedication person couldn’t be a mathematician without some given aptitude (Klemm). The idea of this paper was that anyone who seeks the knowledge of mathematics successfully was changed mentally in such a way that most societies would deem abnormal.

On behalf of all the students to ever take a history of mathematics course thank you kooky wonky masters of the universe for making our textbook even more interesting than it would otherwise be.

P.S.

No formal scientific studies could be found on the common behaviors of mathematicians.

Works Cited

Derbyshire, John. The Unknown Quantity: A Brief History of Algebra. Washington, DC: Joseph

Henry, 506. Print.

“John Forbes Nash, Jr.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 17 Jan. 2015. Web. 25 Jan. 2015.

<http://www.wikipedia.org/&gt;.

Kaplan, Robert, and Ellen Kaplan. The Art of the Infinite: The Pleasures of Mathematics.

Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003. Print.

Klemm, W. R. Memory Power 101: A Comprehensive Guide to Better Learning for Students,

Businesspeople, and Seniors. New York, NY: Skyhorse Pub., 2012. Print.

Laubenbacher, Reinhard, and David Pengelley. Mathematical Expedtions: Chronicles by the

Explorers. New York: Springer, 1999. Print.

Maor, Eli. E: The Story of a Number. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1994. Print.

“Mary Somerville.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 14 Feb. 2015.

<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Somerville&gt;.

“Paul Erdos.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 18 Jan. 2015. Web. 25 Jan. 2015.

<http://www.wikipedia.org/&gt;.

Seife, Charles. Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea. New York: Viking, 2000. Print.

“Sophie Germain.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 14 Feb. 2015.

<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sophie_Germain&gt;.

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