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The eccentric geniuses

| JAYANT V. NARLIKAR
Published Oct 22, 2014, 11:49 am IST
Updated Mar 30, 2019, 7:42 pm IST
Picture for representational purpose.
 Picture for representational purpose.

Mathematicians are supposed to be very precise and logical in their work. That they are, but how do they feature in everyday life outside their work? Here are some illustrative anecdotes. The following story about Leonhard Euler is well known in mathematical circles. Euler spent an extended period of his life in Russia, part of it during the rule of Catherine the Great. The story goes that the French philosopher, Denis Diderot, visited the Russian court and challenged the court intellectuals to debate the existence of God. The empress called upon Euler to take up the challenge. Euler found out that Diderot was afraid of mathematics. So he wrote down a formidable but trivial equation and said, “Because of this equation, it follows that God exists. Would Diderot care to reply?” The French philosopher was rendered speechless and quietly returned to France.

David Hilbert was a doyen of mathematicians. In the golden days of Gottingen, 1920 to 1930, his presence attracted several generations of mathematicians to this university town. However, he had deep disagreements with a few other mathematicians. Pavel Aleksandrov, a Russian mathematician, has described how he manipulated a situation leading to a reconciliation between Hilbert and L.E.J. Brouwer who had fallen apart on the issue of foundations of mathematics. Aleksandrov arranged for them to be invited to an evening meal at Emmy Noether’s place. When all the invitees were seated in the drawing room, he introduced the conversational topic relating to a third mathematician, Luckenwald, whose work both Hilbert and Brouwer disagreed with. So both started expressing negative opinion about him and found that on this count they were in agreement. Thus, while disliking the third party, the two geniuses began to like each other’s opinion.

In a day and age when women were not encouraged to pursue higher education, a few names do stand out: Sophie Germain, Sonya Kowaleskaya and Emmy Noether. In her autobiographical account, Sonya has mentioned that when she was eight years old, her family moved from their city house into the country, and there was a lot of interior work done. It turned out that the wallpaper ordered from St Petersburg was not enough and so the children’s room was dropped. Instead, for the nursery, they used wallpaper in the form of pages from a book lying in the attic. The book happened to be based on lectures on calculus by M.V. Ostragradsky which her father had acquired. Although they did not make sense, the contents of this wallpaper held a fascination for young Sonya. She grew up liking maths and later did important work in the subject. It was when Hilbert was trying to secure a position for Emmy Noether in the mathematics department of Gottingen that the anti-feminist view in the academia was revealed. Hilbert burst out: “I do not see that the sex of the candidate is an argument against her admission as a privatdozent. After all we are a university, not a bathing establishment”

Srinivasa Ramanujan had a reputation for sudden disappearances. There is a story of a lunch party in his apartment in Cambridge. Being a vegetarian he had cooked food himself. After several servings, when the ladies politely declined more, Ramanujan did not say a word, but left the apartment, hailed a taxi and went to Oxford where he remained for a week. His guests were mystified and did not realise that their declining further helpings of his food was seen by Ramanujan as an insult.

We end with this apocryphal story of Norbert Wiener, an American mathematician, who was known for his absent-mindedness. He used to drive to work at Harvard in the morning and come back home in the evening. One day there was to be a change in the routine. The Wieners had sold their house and were moving to the new residence that day. His wife had spared him all the details of the transaction and simply told him that they had sold the house and were moving to another that day, so he must remember to come back in the evening to the new address, which she gave him along with instructions on how to get there. Of course, Wiener forgot and, like on every working day, came back to the old house which he found locked. He could not figure why. Then he saw a young girl standing near the gate and asked her if she knew where the Wieners had gone. The girl replied: “Yes, daddy! I will take you there. Mummy had told me to bring you when you returned here from work.”

The writer, a renowned astrophysicist, is professor emeritus at Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune University Campus

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