Popular Representations of Mathematicians

Editor's Remarks

There are a number of themes here, intertwined (not just popular images of mathematics and mathematicians, but also the broader uses of mathematics in literature and the arts). We had a structural problem in the first draft, dealt with in this version by first proceeding according to medium or genre, then using Auburn's play as a frame of reference. In addition the work of Susan Picker and John Berry on the existing stereotypes of mathematicians, and how they can be altered with by "interventions" consi sting of an interaction with a real "mathematician" (or user of mathematics) is brought to bear. This may possibly account for the emphasis given toward the end on the responsibility of both artists and media executives to provide more realistic portray als, with which I personally am somewhat unsympathetic. Picker and Berry are themselves more concerned with ways that educators can provide images of mathematicians that are less likely to interfere with their own students' ability to see themselves as po tential users of mathematics, and perhaps make it easier for them to apply the effort necessary to learn mathematical concepts and develop mathematical skills. If I'm not mistaken, this concern has resonated strongly with you, and heightened your own conc ern with, or interest in, the effect of recent popular representations of mathematicians on existing stereotypes.

What I personally resist is the implication that our interest in the effects of works of art, or mass produced entertainment, on public perceptions ought also to be a central concern of the artists and others involved in their production. I hold that T o m Stoppard should be concentrating on the achievement of his artistic goals, and Ron Howard should concentrate largely on making vast quantities of money for his backers, which is what I take Hollywood film production to be about.

Regarding the gender issue in Proof, Auburn overstates this for dramatic effect, very reasonably. What he says is true in historical terms but his casual portrayal of the current situation (via Hal) is overstated. He also stacks the cards unfairly against both Hal and the audience, since it seems clear that in the circumstances of Catherine's life she could not actually have come up with the particular kind of proof that is indicated. The primary problem that she confronts in my mind is not one of gender, but the fact that she lacks formal training. The plot depends on the idea that it would be possible in principle to learn very recent advanced mathematics from "books", and there are, in fact, no such books. There is a certain amount of gimmickry in this fast-moving play, and it won't all stand up to a detailed post mortem, nor is it intended to.

I very much liked the summary of the conversation between Osserman and Auburn, which was illuminating. But I wonder if it could have been moved up to the Proof section. In any case it reinforces your own points.

What is your stand on the "Hardy myth"? Do you accept it as a valid portrayal of mathematics or as an error to be combatted? I see both points of view forcefully defended, or so it seems, at various points in the essay.

In the concluding paragraph, I was surprised to see a reference to our seminar. This certainly was not in my mind when I proposed the seminar, though it may possibly be part of what made it viable (though the orientation of the seminar, towards history a nd multiculturalism, seems rather different from the sort of thing currently in people's minds). The last sentence seems a bit baffling, and not much connected to my reading of the essay. You could simply have touched base with the original theme: "It remains to be seen whether this will produce a more or less favorable impression of the subject and its practitioners in the minds of the public." (Or, alternatively, take a definite position on the issue.)

The brief essays written by the class after our joint excursion to Proof turn out to mesh well with your theme, and I think that conversely, your fellow students will find your treatment particularly interesting after having seen and briefly studied that play. On the whole, the class found Jennifer Jason Leigh unnecessarily loud, while Jennifer Orlansky was very pleased with the performance by her understudy, which she happened to catch (from her description, it sounds more understated).

You have a huge list of references, almost all of them useful (though I would except Sinkov). I would like to catch up on some of the films I've missed, and while the play Arcadia may be somewhat tangential to our subject, it's something I've missed that I will definitely want to look into. We were fortunate to stumble on Picker's work, though it was a bit of a challenge to integrate it into the essay. I had also missed the Schogt novel, which I enjoyed reading. C. P. Snow unfortunately did not make it into the essay, and I think he has a certain relevance. With this type of material, one finds an enormous and varied body of primary sources.

(Note: C. P. Snow was also in charge of the allocation of intellectual manpower resources in England during WWII, which means in particular that the work at Bletchley Park reported on by Salinas in his article on Turing was somewhat dependent on this man.)

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