This is a great posting by the mathematician James Propp on his website Mathematical Enchantments, not only for the main story about his experience as a mathematician at a trial, but also for his short excursion into the idea of definitions in mathematics—basically the same topic I was trying to address in my posts on “A Meditation on ‘Is’ in Mathematics” here and here.
Normally I would excerpt such an article and provide the link to the full article, but given the short half-life of links I have also provided a full PDF copy just in case. You should visit the link to see the comments, which I have not included (Propp is lucky to have some of those). In fact, you should take the opportunity to peruse a number of his articles, if you have not already, which are longer in nature, appear monthly, and provide some great insights into mathematics (his pseudosphere icon is the Beltrami surface, which he discusses elsewhere).
See A Mathematician in the Jury Box.
This is one the best articles I have read on gerrymandering regarding its political import, and of course it is by one of the most articulate mathematicians, Jordan Ellenberg:
“Fixing partisan gerrymandering requires some technical calculations. That’s why we filed a mathematicians’ brief to better define the problem—and the solution.”
See Gerrymandering at SCOTUS. (You will have to read the article to understand the picture.)
(Updates 4/8/2019, 6/27/2019, 8/27/2022) Continue reading
A mathematics friend of mine just sent me this link to a 2017 posting by “recovering mathematician” Junaid Mubeen that I found most apt. If you haven’t seen it yet, take a look.
“[M]athematics need not be situated at the extremes of established knowledge. We can all revel in problems whose solutions are known. Even when humankind has exhausted its capacity to extend its collective knowledge base, as individuals our ignorance is what keeps our mathematical instincts aflame. Problem solving lies between the boundaries of what we know and what we seek. This sweet spot is where we all—novices and experts alike—get to bend and twist what we know to forge new truths for ourselves. Who cares if our discoveries are already known to the rest of the world (or machines, for that matter)? The satisfaction of finding my own solution, of pushing through my own knowledge limits, is as enthralling as the pursuit of ‘new’ proofs promised by research mathematics. Let the machines come; mathematics does not belong to the omnipotent.”
This view echoes my feeling that we can enjoy performing music even if we can’t compose it. See Who Gets To Be Called A Mathematician.
In light of subsequent events it may be that being a politician requires its own set of skills, but this praise of his profession of engineering before he became president casts the unfortunate Herbert Hoover in a different light. My father brought this surprising excerpt from Hoover’s autobiography to my attention years ago. I have highlighted the part that is especially insightful. Unfortunately, the balance of the chapter praising an engineer’s involvement in government does not fare as well, given the author, though a subsequent engineer US president, whatever his shortcomings, was never faulted for his honesty and moral rectitude. See the Profession of Engineering.
This 1975 New York Times article by Cyril Stanley Smith left an indelible impression over the years to the point that I wanted to capture it in digital format. I found a 1996 copy online, formatted it more closely to the original article, and found more recent images of the illustrations used in the original article. It is a powerful argument for the benefits of basic research vs. directed research. The pursuit of pure mathematics often is accused of being a product of imagination run rampant with no practical purpose. It is argued that Government expenditures of public moneys for research should be applied more to directed research that has specific practical goals with explicit criteria for success. It has always been difficult to argue otherwise. Smith’s article, however, goes a long way toward a rebuttal, as well as showing the benefits of play and artistic creativity for its own sake. See the Aesthetic Curiosity – The Root of Invention.