If I could prove by logic that you would die in five
minutes, I should be sorry you were going to
There is something ineffably sad about this book by the mathematician G.H. Hardy, by all accounts a brilliant and a decent man, who was approaching the end of his career and realized that his contributions in the field all lay behind him. The "apology" seems in many ways to be for not being the kind of surpassing genius who revolutionizes scientific/mathematical thought--a Newton, an Einstein or a Gauss, not even the kind of natural genius that his protégé Ramanujan was. Hardy described himself as "at best, for a short time, the fifth best pure mathematician in the world." His best work came in collaboration with Ramanujan and Littlewood. But it was great work and he was one of the best mathematicians of his time and that gives the apology a kind of self-indulgent tone; who but he cares whether he was number five or number one? It's as if Jim Kelly felt compelled to write a book justifying his career in football because he was a runner up five times. Hardy makes it clear that he sees mathematics as a unique endeavor and achievement in the field as the one guarantor of true immortality: Archimedes will be remembered when Aeschylus is forgotten,
because languages die and
But he has a glaring blind spot; perhaps understandably, he overemphasizes the centrality of math to human existence. C.P. Snow's Introduction to the book discusses Hardy's lifelong animus towards religion and Hardy himself is pretty dismissive of politicians, philosophers, artists and authors. But the fact is that billions of people remember the words of Moses and Christ and Mohammed and the Buddha, can quote long passages of Shakespeare, can hum a few bars of Bach and Beethoven and Elvis. But ask us what Gauss did and our eyes will glaze over. Hardy was apparently attracted to mathematics because it was a closed system (or series of systems) with set parameters and certain proofs. Within that system men can achieve certainty and can achieve immortality at least in the eyes of those who study the system, but how do the accomplishments of these men measure up against those of men like John Locke and Adam Smith and James Madison who created the liberal democratic capitalist state? It is not surprising that Hardy had such tunnel vision, because mathematics was apparently his whole life, except for cricket. He spent his whole career in the ivory tower. He had no family. As mentioned, he had ditched any religious beliefs. What was left to him but his chosen field of study? It comes as no surprise when Snow reveals that Hardy later, with his health failing, tried to commit suicide. If math was his life and he had lost the creativity necessary to excel at it, what would be the point of continuing? This is a very fine book, interesting, accessible and eminently quotable.
But like many of the intellectuals of his generation (he was loosely affiliated
with the Apostles and the Bloomsbury Group), there is a hollowness apparent
at his core. In his discussion of a couple of mathematical proofs,
it is obvious that Hardy revels in the achievements of the men who demonstrated
that these numerical relationships exist. As I read, I was struck
by a tangible sense that the beauty of these relationships implies a creator
behind them. I repeat Suffice it to say, these are not the sorts of speculations that engaged G.H. Hardy. Instead he ended his, by his own measure, mediocre career, cloistered away in the insular world of the university, alone and compelled to produce a written justification for his life. The self portrait he has produced is one of the saddest images I've encountered of the bitter harvest that has been reaped by the hollow men (see Orrin's review) of the 20th Century.
In G.H. Hardy's book The mass of mathematical truth is obvious and imposing; its practical applications, the bridges and steam engines and dynamos, obtrude themselves on the dullest imagination. The public does not need to be convinced that there is something in mathematics. All this is in its way very comforting to mathematicians, but it is hardly possible for a genuine mathematician to be content with it. Any genuine mathematician must feel that it is not on these crude achievements that the real case for mathematics rests, that the popular reputation of mathematics is based largely on ignorance and confusion. When I say to people that I majored in math at Colgate, I get looks of ignorance and confusion, also. Why? I didn't do particularly well, probably hit a wall of knowledge somewhere along the line. The math that I studied only touched on the "real" math that Hardy describes as his life work. Why are people so scared of it? Because it is the fear of the unknown, possibly combined with the fear of failure. I would like to defend his career, though. I think that real math is justified in that there is always the possibility that solutions could lead to a great discovery in other fields, something as yet undiscovered in the realms of real math will benefit us, the ignorant masses. In Hardy's bio (listed as a Brother's Judd link: http://britannica.com/bcom/eb/article/5/0,5716,40055+1,00.html) it states that one of his solutions (the Hardy-Weinberg Law) helped in genetic research. So why the need for an apology? This is not so much an apology as an attempt to justify his own existence. It is stated in the over-long pre-ramble that he is an atheist and it is implied not so subtly that he is a homosexual, thus facing the prospect of no descendants. He feels the need to leave something of lasting value. He feels the need to give some meaning to his existence (could it also be a suicide note?) Hardy tries to justify math's "beauty" through comparisons to chess and poetry. He also tries to convince us of its seriousness as a discipline. OK, I'm buying. Mathematics is a worthwhile endeavor. But what's the point. In his conclusion he finally gets to the point: The case for my life, then, or for that of any one
else who has been a mathematician in the same
The end of the book reveals the true nature of his apology, he is trying
to justify his existence by
Tweet ## Websites:Book-related and General Links:-ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA: Hardy, Godfrey Harold -BIO: Godfrey Harold Hardy (born February 7, 1877; died December 1, 1947) -DISCUSSION GROUP: G.H. Hardy Lecture Hall (Moby Dick) -ARTICLE: MATHEMATICIAN'S (Srinivasa Ramanujan) FINAL EQUATIONS PRAISED (JOHN NOBLE WILFORD, NY Times) -ESSAY: Can Science Be Ethical? (FREEMAN DYSON, NY Review of Books) -REVIEW: Ian Stewart: In The Jungle of the Infinite, NY Review of Books The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan by Robert Kanigel Acquaintances by Arnold J. Toynbee Variety of Men by C.P. Snow -REVIEW: Rudolf Peierls: One Culture, NY Review of Books The Physicists by C.P. Snow -SPEECH: The Perils of Popularizing Science Writing Presented by Robert Kanigel (Alfred and Julia Hill Lecture on Science, Society and the Media The University of Tennessee, Knoxville on April 7, 1999) -REVIEW: of ZERO The Biography of a Dangerous Idea By Charles Seife (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times) -REVIEW: of FERMAT'S ENIGMA The Quest to Solve the World's Greatest Mathematical Problem. By Simon Singh (Roger Penrose, NY Times Book Review) -REVIEW: of ARCHIMEDES' REVENGE The Joys and Perils of Mathematics. By Paul Hoffman (Jim Holt, NY Times Book Review) -REVIEW: of A BEAUTIFUL MIND By Sylvia Nasar (David Goodstein, NY Times Book Review) -REVIEW: of A MATHEMATICIAN READS THE NEWSPAPER By John Allen Paulos (Richard Bernstein, NY Times) -REVIEW: of THE MAN WHO LOVED ONLY NUMBERS The Story of Paul Erdos and the Search for Mathematical Truth. By Paul Hoffman (James Alexander, NY Times Book Review) -ESSAY: PHYSICS AND FICTION: ORDER FROM CHAOS (John Banville, NY Times Book Review) -ESSAY: Key concepts: the science of secrecy (London Review of Books, Brian Rotman) |

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